A decision by the Missouri House to defund law enforcement sobriety checkpoints has been met with mixed reaction around the state and came after a lively floor debate this week.
Led by Republican Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, the chamber voted for the second year in a row to strip all but $1 from the state funding of checkpoints.
That means a much larger share of the $20 million the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) receives for drunk driving prevention efforts will be earmarked for “saturation patrols”.
MoDOT disperses the federal money which comes through the National Highway Safety Act. A saturation patrol is a law enforcement tactic in which a large number of officers are concentrated into a small geographic area to spot crime.
During floor debate, Fitzpatrick said that purely from a budgetary standpoint, saturation patrols are much more cost-effective.
“We spent $1.2-or $1.3 million on the last full fiscal year that we have data for,” said Fitzpatrick. “The arrests that we got, we spent over $1,000 per arrest that we got at a checkpoint. For saturation patrols, we got three times as many arrests for about a third of the cost.”
Republican Representative Bill Kidd of Independence, a former reserve deputy, said experience taught him that checkpoints are needed to work hand-in-hand with saturation patrols.
“We would set up in a position where no one could see you coming over a hill, and then we’d have cars up on there,” said Kidd. “And the minute somebody would come over and start to make a turn because they don’t want to go to the checkpoint, guess what, you got them.”
GOP Representative Shane Roden of Cedar Hill noted that communications technology has made checkpoints obsolete. “Cell phones have made it nearly impossible for DWI checkpoints to work,” said Roden. “They avoid the areas. Saturation patrols target certain areas where we know that there’s increased drinking and driving going on, and it’s more effective.”
St. Joseph Republican Galen Higdon served 30 years with the Buchanan County Sheriff’s Office. He said well-advertised checkpoints motivate people to not drink and drive.
“So the whole thing about it is, is that the officers are not there looking to make arrests and ruin someone’s life,” said Higdon. They’re there to protect and serve and save someone’s life by eliminating that driver from getting in that vehicle in the first place.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has backed up the legality of sobriety checkpoints. In a 6-3 decision in 1990, the Court held 6-3 that they met the Fourth Amendment standard of “reasonable search and seizure.” Still, Republican Representative Phil Christofanelli of St. Peters thinks they’re an infringement on personal liberty.
“Before the government stops and questions you and detains you, there should be cause,” said Christofanelli. “Simply being out at night on a road is not sufficient cause to detain and question our constituency.”
Republican Kathie Conway of St. Charles sponsored the amendment. She chairs the Budget Subcommittee on Public Safety, Corrections, Transportation, and Revenue. During floor debate, GOP Budget Chairman Fitzpatrick stated that he and Conway normally agree on most issues, with the use of money for checkpoints being the rare exception.
For her part, Conway said her proposal showed restraint in its use of funds. “I’m talking about $500,000 out of a $19 million line to assist those areas that find that checkpoints are useful to their best advantage,” said Conway.
A small number of Democrats, including Tracy McCreery and Karla May, both of St. Louis, spoke in favor of restoring money sobriety checkpoints. McCreery pointed to studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that illustrate their effectiveness.
According to the CDC’s website, checkpoints “reduced alcohol-related fatal, injury, and property damage crashes each by about 20 percent” while they “reduce alcohol-related crashes by 17 percent, and all crashes by 10 to 15 percent”.
Critics of checkpoints have noted that police agencies are still free to employ the tactic with money not provided by the state.
Conway’s amendment was defeated by a relatively split vote of 77-60 in a chamber that’s dominated by a roughly 3-1 margin by Republicans.
The House vote is not the final word on checkpoints as the Senate will have to weigh in. However, the upper chamber did not deviate from the House position last year.
The organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) didn’t waste time slamming the House decision, saying it was “appalled and dismayed”.
“Tying the hands of law enforcement to not be able to carry out the laws aimed at protecting the public from drunk drivers makes no sense and is a deadly decision hindering the livelihood of everyone,” said MADD National President Colleen Sheehey-Church.