DUI checkpoints costly, catch few
46,000 drivers stopped, but only 75 are convicted
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Pima County sobriety checkpoints have
netted a tiny number of DUI arrests despite stopping tens of thousands
of drivers since 2005, an Arizona Daily Star investigation has found.
Since the Sheriff's Department began staging checkpoints nearly
two years ago — overriding authorities' previous concerns that the
stops yielded few arrests — fewer than 1 percent of the more than
46,000 drivers stopped have been arrested on suspicion of DUI.
And fewer than half of those arrested have been convicted.
Even with the low arrest rates, proponents defend the checkpoints,
saying they deter drunken driving by educating people about its
dangers. Every person deputies stop receives anti-drunken-driving
pamphlets, which they say means one more person who may avoid driving
under the influence.
Still, the number of DUI arrests has remained constant since the
stops were reinstituted in September 2005 after a 10-year hiatus. In
other words, it doesn't appear fewer drivers are driving while drunk.
"It's a good sign that we've arrested so few people," Sheriff's
Lt. Karl Woolridge, who supervises the agency's special operations,
including checkpoints, said when presented with the Star's findings.
"At least we've removed nearly 300 impaired drivers off the road."
But critics of the checkpoints, including defense attorneys and
civil libertarians, question their effectiveness and legality. They say
police have more sure-fire methods for spotting drunken drivers, such
as concentrated patrols.
The Sheriff's Department has spent more than $140,000, mostly in federal and state money, on 63 staffed checkpoints though May.
DUI checkpoints force drivers to stop and talk with a deputy, who
asks them if they've consumed alcohol or taken drugs. Depending on the
driver's answer, the deputy will inspect the driver for bloodshot eyes,
alcohol-tinged breath and other telltale signs of impairment.
How effective those procedures are, and to what degree critics say
they constitute an unreasonable search and seizure, is up for debate.
Checkpoints are "feel-good measures that are costly," said
Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the American Civil
Liberties Union of Arizona. "It gives the impression that they're
reducing the amount of drunk driving, but it doesn't seem to be the
Questions of effectiveness
As Independence Day neared its close this summer, sheriff's
deputies at a Southwest Side DUI checkpoint had spent more than two
hours stopping cars on West Valencia Road near South Westover Avenue.
The lines of vehicles, sometimes more than a dozen deep, rolled by
as deputies repeated a familiar line: "Good evening. Have you consumed
any alcohol or drugs today?"
The answer, by and large, was "no." But for the few who said "yes"
or looked suspicious, deputies asked the driver to pull into the median
and perform a field-sobriety test.
Between September 2005 and May 2007, the Sheriff's Department
conducted 1,168 such tests at DUI checkpoints, records show. That means
that for every four drivers who were screened, deputies arrested one.
One of those tested that July 4 night was a woman in her 20s who
registered 0.119 percent blood-alcohol level on a Breathalyzer, above
the state's 0.08 percent DUI level.
In the back seat sat two minors drinking beer, the remnants of a 24-pack between them.
"Yeah," said Woolridge as he observed the woman. "This is why we do checkpoints."
Still, at this stop, the unidentified woman was one of only three
DUI suspects, the Sheriff's Department reported. From 9:15 p.m. to
12:15 a.m., deputies counted 1,239 cars that passed through, an arrest
rate of less than one-tenth of 1 percent. Thirteen deputies staffed
Such low rates, critics say, are why authorities should be shifting tactics.
Police officers are well-trained in how to spot drunken drivers,
"and then they just stop everyone who's driving along," said Joe St.
Louis, a local attorney who specializes in drunken-driving cases,
including some that began at checkpoints.
"It's just crazy. If you stop people at random, it's not an
efficient use of your time or of taxpayer dollars," he said. Such
random stops, critics argue, just waste the time of sober drivers and
While it's hard to say just how effective DUI checkpoints are
compared with other enforcement methods, statistics show that their
educational component is also debatable: DUI arrests have remained
relatively constant each month since they began in September 2005.
That month, the department recorded 125 DUI arrests; in June 2007,
there were 127. The most between those months was this May, at 175.
The department stopped DUI checkpoints in the mid-'90s amid
concerns of low arrest rates, Woolridge said. But after sheriff's
officials examined studies that showed checkpoints have a deterrent
effect, the department restarted the program.
Few arrests, fewer convictions
The Arizona Daily Star reviewed court cases of those arrested at
the checkpoints from September 2005 through May 2007 and compared the
data with checkpoint statistics from the Sheriff's Department. The
newspaper obtained the list of checkpoint arrests through a
public-records request in June.
Among the Star's findings:
● Sheriff's officials counted 46,781 drivers who went through the
checkpoints, most of whom were not arrested or even tested for being
● Of those drivers who were stopped, deputies arrested 282 on
suspicion of drunken driving. That accounts for 0.6 percent of all
drivers who went through the checkpoints.
● Of the 180 DUI cases that have been through the courts, 105 have
been dismissed. Defense lawyers point to weak evidence, such as a lack
of reasonable suspicion, and constitutional violations as reasons why,
although they say each case is different.
● While deputies were able to stop drivers who were perhaps the
most egregious offenders, they also snagged some who were far below the
DUI level. Still, Arizona law prohibits drivers from getting behind the
wheel if they're impaired to the slightest degree.
● Although most of the arrests or citations at checkpoints were
DUI-related, more than 100 were not. Citations ranged from possession
of marijuana to driving on a suspended license.
Outcomes in 22 cases couldn't be determined because corresponding
court records couldn't be found despite an extensive search. The
Sheriff's Department also could not find records in those cases.
Five to 30 deputies can staff a checkpoint, statistics show, with
a few sergeants at each checkpoint, too. Six to 12 sheriff's volunteers
assist the officers, Woolridge said.
In the last two years, the agency has spent about $142,000 on
overtime pay for checkpoints, data show. If divided up yearly, that
accounts for a sizable amount of the funds from the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration and the state, according to a calculation
of budget figures.
About $120,000 of the federal money given to Arizona went to the
Sheriff's Department in fiscal 2007 to help pay for deputies' overtime
at checkpoints and DUI patrols, said Michael Hegarty, the deputy
director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety. The state gives
the money to Pima County, which then divvies it up to local agencies,
including the Sheriff's Department.
Among the checkpoints with the most deputies was one conducted
during Labor Day weekend in 2005. Records show 27 deputies staffed the
checkpoint for more than three hours, netting four arrests at North La
Cholla Boulevard and West Ruthrauff Road out of 571 drivers who passed
But to some DUI-checkpoint proponents, hassles for so many sober drivers are worth it even if the stops cause delays.
"Inconvenience is a way of life," said Kelly Larkin, executive
director of the Tucson affiliate of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Even
if the cases against drivers get dismissed, she said, "It got them off
the streets that night."
Pal Ham approached the DUI checkpoint on West Picture Rocks Road
near Saguaro National Park West on Sept. 4, 2006. Before he got behind
the wheel, he'd had a few beers — three to be exact, he said.
Deputies arrested Ham, 74, on a drunken-driving charge, court
records show. He pleaded guilty after blowing a 0.105 percent
blood-alcohol content, and said he spent a night in jail.
To this date, he has mixed feelings about the checkpoints.
"I could get along without them," he said, "until one of my loved ones gets killed."
Ham's case epitomizes why checkpoints are worth the time, proponents say.
Still, the most widely cited alternative to sobriety checkpoints are "saturation patrols," which increase the number of police officers on the streets to look for drunken drivers.
Thus, lawyers and checkpoint critics say, defendants have more
evidence against them as officers can observe more telltale signs of
impairment, such as weaving or stopping at a green light.
Some agencies, including the Tucson Police Department, have
stopped conducting checkpoints, a spokesman said, but he could not
Nonetheless, Hegarty, the Governor's Office of Highway Safety
official, said a DUI checkpoint is "not about arresting; it's about
having a presence and educating the community."
Here and in other states, authorities plan to continue using checkpoints as part of their arsenal against drunken driving.
In fact, state and local officials are planning a crackdown on
drunken driving this Labor Day weekend that will include a checkpoint
in Pima County.
"We're here to catch impaired drivers," Woolridge said at the July 4 checkpoint. "This isn't a fishing expedition."
One professor who has studied the effectiveness of DUI checkpoints
said his results show that checkpoints were associated with a 20
percent reduction in drunken-driving crashes in the
Maryland-Virginia-Washington, D.C., area.
But that's only "if they are done often enough and publicized,"
said Kenneth H. Beck, a professor of public and community health at the
University of Maryland. "Otherwise, they're not likely to get the
Today, Beck said, checkpoints are much more common nationwide. But
of the more than 1.5 million people who are arrested for drinking and
driving each year, he said, "far more are arrested outside of
The question of such checkpoints' effectiveness, then, comes down to perspective.
"One of the arguments is that there is a general public-awareness
factor," said Roger Hartley, an associate professor of public
administration and policy at the University of Arizona's Eller College
"But if it was worth the cost, they'd do it all the time."
Compare how effective various DUI checkpoints have been over the
past two years in an interactive map at www.azstarnet.com/crime.
By the numbers:
• Drivers stopped at checkpoints: 46,781
• Field-sobriety tests: 1,168
• DUI- related arrests: 282
• DUI cases dismissed: 105*
• DUI convictions: 75*
*102 cases still pending.
Source: Arizona Daily Star analysis of Pima
County Sheriff's Department DUI checkpoint arrest data and Pima County
Consolidated Justice Court records, from September 2005 to May 2007.
Did you Know ...
The Legislature changed Arizona's DUI blood-alcohol content from
0.10 percent to 0.08 percent in September 2001. The new law was
prompted partly by a 2000 federal law that withholds some highway money
to states that have not adopted the lower limit.
Out Next Weekend
Officers will be on special weekend DUI enforcement details Labor
Day weekend, the Pima County Sheriff's Department said, which will
include sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols. The enforcement is
part of a national anti-DUI campaign that began in mid-August.