The old liberty vs. safety tug-of-war has hit the Utah Legislature again.
If police set up a random roadblock, force your car to stop and check to see whether you have been drinking alcohol, is that a violation of your constitutional rights?
No, the Supreme Court has said, but only if certain conditions are met. Those include having a supervisor, not an officer in the field, decide where and when to hold them and how to randomly select cars to stop.
Also — and this is a big one as far as the Legislature is concerned — the checkpoint must include clearly visible warning lights and the locations must be disclosed to the public in advance.
HB140 would outlaw such roadblocks in Utah. Supporters of the bill, which already has passed the House, say roadblocks are ineffective because chronic drunk drivers know where they will be and easily can avoid them. They also say the practice is “constitutionally dubious.”
That last argument strikes a chord with me.
Years ago, as a reporter, I covered a case before the Utah Supreme Court involving a man who had been stopped by police and convicted of driving drunk. The officer had stopped to help another motorist when he noticed the drunk driver going only 20 mph in a 40 mph zone and stopping momentarily to watch what was going on. The officer temporarily left the other motorist and followed his hunch.
Unfortunately, hunches do not equal “probable cause,” which is what the Constitution says you have to have in order to search someone.
Even though the man was drunk and was convicted of drunk driving, the Utah Supreme Court threw out his conviction. His actions, the court said, were no different from those of a sober driver and were no reason for an officer to search him.
So I’m left with this: If such a driver can get off because his strange behavior wasn’t quite strange enough to constitute probable cause, why is it OK to stop people randomly, without any suspicion at all?
I know what the U.S. Supreme Court said, but it’s instructive to read all the opinions in that case. The gist of the dissenters was that the Constitution doesn’t provide for exceptions.
If Utah passes this law, it would be the 12th state to outlaw roadblocks.
But is this really a liberty vs. safety tug-of-war? The bill’s supporters say no, checkpoints really don’t capture many drunk drivers.
The pressure should be on the bill’s detractors to show otherwise.