Sobriety checkpoints have high cost, but high reward, officers say

Each checkpoint costs $8,000 to $10,000
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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The $12 million price tag on sobriety checkpoints statewide is worth it for the lives they save, according to state transportation and local law enforcement officials. They also agree that checkpoints serve as more of a deterrent to people to drinking and driving, than an enforcement mechanism. “The purpose of them is not to hand out a lot of tickets, but to act as a deterrent,” said Chris Cochran, spokesperson for the California Office of Traffic Safety. “DUI checkpoints when used often and effectively, can actually lower the number of fatal traffic crashes by up to 25 percent. The average is 20 percent.” On average, each checkpoint costs between $8,000 and $10,000, he said. Most law enforcement agencies in California rely on grants from the office of traffic safety to conduct sobriety checkpoint and saturation patrols. Cochran said the funds the office administers for anti-DUI campaigns are funded mostly by the federal government. “We are 99.5 percent federally funded,” Cochran said. While sobriety checkpoints are among the most expensive of deterrence methods, studies by the National Traffic Safety Administration also found them to be among the most effective at deterring drivers from drunken driving. While sobriety checkpoints are a better deterrent for people not to drink and drive, saturation patrols are a better form of enforcement, Cochran said. The checkpoints are meant to be highly visible and publicized. “When you see comments or stories about, ‘there were only three DUIs at a particular checkpoint,’ so somebody says, ‘look how ineffective these are,’ you have to think about how many hundreds, if not thousands, or ten thousands of people were aware of that DUI checkpoint and made the mental note not to drink and drive, or call a friend, or a cab,” Cochran said. Each year the law enforcement agencies of Placer County join together for the Avoid the 7 campaign, which is funded by grants. A combination of sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols are conducted around major holidays. Last year, 205 people were arrested for driving under the influence through the county’s Avoid the 7 campaign. The Auburn California Highway Patrol based in Newcastle is among the agencies that take part in the countywide campaign. Officer Nick Kuhl said sobriety checkpoints are most effective at DUI deterrence through education. “I think they are worth it from the standpoint of public education. That is their main focus. They do get some DUI drivers coming through, which is a good thing obviously,” Kuhl said. “When the officers are on line for the DUI checkpoints, they are also handing out informational packets.” Auburn Police Chief John Ruffcorn said while some people believe the checkpoints infringe on their Fourth Amendment rights, he agrees when conducted correctly they do help keep drunken drivers off of the road. “I think they are effective. I think along with any of our enforcement activities, they need to be done correctly,” Ruffcorn said. “I think you need to show cause and direct enforcement in that direction.” Ruffcorn said there are currently 11 states that do not use the checkpoints, but they are constitutional. “This has been tried all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. They determined sobriety checkpoints were constitutional,” Ruffcorn said. Lisa Holden, a bartender at the California Club in Auburn, said she has noticed sobriety checkpoints are a deterrent to drinking and driving for some customers. “I think it helps,” Holden said. “I do hear them talk about it a lot of times, like to get a driver, especially on holiday weekends.” Reach Sara Seyydin at