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Archive for Sunday, August 4, 1991

POLICE STEPPING UP SOBRIETY CHECKS

August 4, 1991

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It's 1 a.m., and the driver of a car notices several sets of flashing red lights on the road ahead.

An accident? A fire?

Neither.

"Good evening, could I please see your driver's license?" a police officer asks, approaching the driver.

The scene is becoming more common in Lawrence.

Driver's license and sobriety checks, conducted by the Lawrence police and Douglas County sheriff's departments, have been stepped up this summer with the addition of several police officers and grant money from the state.

"The (police) shifts have been short-handed for so long that they haven't had time to do the type of selective enforcement that we would like to do," said police Sgt. James Haller, a 29-year police veteran and night shift supervisor.

"Now that we have some additional officers, we can take some pro-active measures like the driver's license and safety equipment check lanes that we weren't able to do in the past."

OFFICERS hired in the aftermath of last year's approval by voters of an additional half-cent city sales tax have enabled the police department to step up the number of check lanes. Of 27 officers approved by voters, 19 now are working the street.

Although police say they don't keep exact figures, they estimate that about 20 driver's check lanes have been conducted in various locations in the city this year, compared with a fraction of that number in 1990.

"When people voted for the sales tax, they were voting for the check lanes," police Lt. Mark Brothers said.

The sheriff's department also is conducting sobriety checkpoints on selected county roads and highways, using a $3,200 grant announced in April. Sobriety checkpoints normally would not be conducted without the grant, sheriff's Lt. Don Crowe said.

THE COUNTY grant, which is allowing sheriff's officers to conduct six sobriety check lanes during the spring, summer and fall, was awarded by the Kansas Department of Transportation in another effort to curb drunk driving.

Do the local measures really significantly curtail drunk driving?

Police, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and many drivers themselves say yes.

"I would estimate that we make between one and four arrests for OUI (operating under the influence) each time we conduct a driver's license check lane," said police Lt. Larry Loveland, another night shift supervisor.

"When we first started doing them we used to get that many arrests in the first 30 minutes," Haller said. "I think it's gone down somewhat since then, which is somewhat encouraging."

LOCAL CHECK lanes have been conducted with varying frequency during the past decade, but the number had fallen until the addition of the new officers, police Sgt. Ed Brunt said.

A 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling held that the privacy rights of motorists are not violated when officers set up checkpoints, affirming the way in which local law enforcement agencies conducted the checks.

The local check lanes follow a simple operation. Using several police cars and six to 12 officers, police at a certain location stop every motorist traveling in a targeted direction.

The number of officers used in the check depends on how many are not responding to other calls, police said. The checks usually are conducted Wednesdays through Sundays between midnight and 2 a.m., when police shifts overlap. Locations of checkpoints vary.

THE COST to taxpayers for the police department to conduct a two-hour check lane staffed by 10 officers is approximately $260, using the average salary of $13 for an officer.

But, "DL check lanes are not expensive," Brunt said. He noted that the same amount of money would be spent for officers to patrol or conduct other duties.

Roughly 200 vehicles are stopped during each check, police estimated.

A list of check sites and dates are announced to the local media before they are conducted, but exact locations and times are not revealed.

For example, the Lawrence Police Department will issue a press release saying officers will conduct checks at certain locations during specific days. The release will not give a particular location on a particular day.

KANSAS ATTY. Gen. Bob Stephan, in a 1990 opinion, said public notification of check lanes is required, but the extent to which exact information must be released is ambiguous.

Last month alone, 55 OUI arrests were made in the city, according to municipal court records. In May, 28 arrests were made and in June, 27 were made. The numbers were identical for May and June of last year, but only 22 OUI arrests were reported in July 1990.

Records do not specify how many arrests were made through the check lanes.

Police do not keep statistics on the number of checks conducted nor on the number of people arrested or cited because the checks are considered part of "routine" duty, Brunt said.

Despite the lack of hard figures, police insist that they are catching many drunk drivers.

"They allow us to find impaired drivers that we normally wouldn't be able to find," Haller said.

DURING THE CHECKS, officers ask to see drivers' licenses and conduct a visual inspection of a vehicle's headlights and rear brake lights.

The checks usually take about a minute each, although they may take longer overall if drivers are backed up in traffic.

"If it gets too backed up, then we'll stop the checks and let several cars go by before we start again," Loveland said.

During the check, if the officer suspects that the driver has been drinking alcohol, or if the driver has a suspended license or is driving a vehicle with a safety violation, such as a missing light, the driver is asked to pull over.

Drivers with a suspended license or drivers operating a vehicle with a safety violation are issued citations. If vehicle violations are corrected within 72 hours after the ticket is issued, the citation can be voided.

IF THE DRIVER is suspected of drinking, he or she is given a field sobriety test.

The sobriety test is composed of several physical excercises. People are asked to lean back with their feet together, close their eyes and touch their nose, walk in a straight line and do other tasks.

If police believe the person is intoxicated, an arrest is made and a breath test is administered.

A person legally is drunk in Kansas if his or her blood-alcohol level is 0.1 percent or above. A driver who fails a field sobriety test can be arrested for OUI if a test reveals any amount of alcohol in the bloodstream, Loveland said.

"What we're trying to do is get the impaired drivers off the road," he said.

Haller said many drivers appreciate the check lanes.

"Most people are very pleasant about it," he said. "I've had very few complaints."

Haller said he's seen drivers whose alcohol level exceeds 0.25 percent.

"Some of these people can't even stand, yet they get into a motor vehicle and think they can drive home," he said.

Loveland said he's seen an increase in the number of designated drivers because of public awareness.

DURING A RECENT check lane on the southbound lane of the Kansas River Bridge observed by the Journal-World, five arrests were made four for OUI and one on an outstanding municipal court warrant. Eleven other license and vehicle safety violations were found. The check was conducted from midnight to 1:38 a.m.

Most drivers went through the lane without a problem.

At its peak, the check caused a backup of about 15 vehicles on the bridge for about 30 minutes. Motorists at the back of the line during that time spent five to 10 minutes waiting to pass through the check.

Shaun Elston, 18, Lawrence, said he wasn't inconvenienced by the check.

"It's not too bad when they do it here on the bridge because it goes pretty fast," he said.

"The way they've got it set up it's not that bad," said Melany Michael, 28, Lawrence, who also went through the check. "I think that, especially in a college town, it could be a good thing it could probably teach someone a lesson without costing too much."

NOT EVERYONE who passed through the check was happy, however.

A 22-year-old Lawrence man was cited for driving with a suspended license. The driver's 42-year-old passenger, who owned the vehicle, cried foul.

"I called my friend to come pick me up because I had been drinking, and he gets a ticket," said the passenger, a Lawrence man who declined to reveal his name.

Police said the passenger could not pass a field sobriety test, and they would allow neither he nor his friend to drive the vehicle. The vehicle ended up being towed.

"That doesn't sound very fair," the passenger said. "But at least it wasn't an OUI."

The penalty for first-time OUI offenders is a minumum 48 hours in jail and a fine of $200 to $500, said Christine Kenney, Douglas County assistant district attorney. Offenders also must pay a $110 fee for an "alcohol evaluation" conducted by a rehabilitation agency, which can recommend court-ordered alcohol abuse treatment for OUI offenders.

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