08 January 2008

Sobriety Checkpoints Advocated by Washington's Governor

MADD says Evergreen State doesn't do enough against drunk driving.

It's hard to find an argument in favor of drunken driving. Even people who do it probably know it's a very bad idea. All you have to do is bring this topic up in conversation with a group of people and the horrible tales of death and injury will be told.

It is, therefore, difficult to enter into a discussion of drunken driving without encountering intense emotion. When loved ones have been killed or injured by an alcohol addict at the wheel of an automobile, rational thought goes out the window. Revenge becomes the focus of the victim's family and friends, and this angry desire to lash out at the perpetrators drives a powerful political force. Mother's Against Drunk Driving (MADD), is arguably the most visible and well-organized manifestation of that force.

MADD was formed in 1980, and states that their mission is to "eliminate... drunk driving and... underage drinking," and "to serve drunk driving victims and survivors."

This organization has an effective strategy of putting government officials on the spot and demonstrated that with a November report that ranked the State of Washington as "40th in the nation in its efforts to eliminate drunken driving." [Seattle Times 7 Jan '08.]

Politicians do not enjoy the role of pariah, and Governor Christine Gregoire issued a statement calling for "legislation to authorize police to set up sobriety spot checks." The City of Seattle tried this tactic in the early 1980s but the State Supreme Court forced an end to the program, saying that it violated the State Constitution. Legislation could possibly overcome the constitutional prohibition, according to Washington State Justice James Dolliver. [ibid.]

It is a cold-hearted person indeed who is not moved by a story such as the "deaths of Ashley Ann North, 20, of Pleasant Grove, and Stephan Sean Peery, 20, of Provo, [Utah] on July 14[2007]." The drunken driver, Benjamin Louis Shaw, was convicted of "two second-degree felony counts of automobile homicide" in this case. A third victim was seriously injured in the crash. [Salt Lake Tribune 5 Jan. '08]

We are horrified, personally and as citizens, when this happens, and it happens very often: I found the Salt Lake Tribune article in less than a minute by searching Google News for "drunk driving tragedy." I had plenty of awful stories to choose from. The frequency of occurrence, and feelings of frustration and anger at the persistence of the problem make it nearly impossible to be objective. It is at this very point that we freedom-loving citizens of the USA become suggestible: perhaps we could trade away one of our rights to stop this abhorrent crime? If only we empowered our police officers to make random sobriety checks, certainly we would catch many of these sociopaths before they can do their damage?

In the shadow of the ruins of the World Trade Center, and in the smoke of the burning Pentagon, cries for prevention and revenge were heard. And so were born the USA PATRIOT act, and the Military Commissions Act of 2006. These pieces of federal legislation removed previously sacred rights in the name of fighting terrorism. I leave it to the reader to judge how effective that fight has been; the rights are gone, nonetheless -- leaving me for one with a feeling of buyer's remorse. What have we traded away for this mess of pottage?

Are we then, at the State level, to repeat this same action? Should we allow our police officers to randomly stop automobiles and check the sobriety of their drivers, without probable cause? Why not? After all, driving is a privilege, not a right. One must have a license to drive, and agrees to various conditions upon applying for and receiving that license. Being subject to such checkpoints could be simply made a condition of being granted a Washington State Driver's License.

On the other hand, driving an automobile is a de facto requirement for being a fully franchised citizen. Unless one lives in one of the metropoli with adequate public transportation (and Washington has none of these) he or she will simply not be able to move about in a manner consistent with normal life unless in possession of a driver's license and automobile. In pursuit of life (liberty, and happiness) is it right to require a citizen to give up his or her Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable search? And further, could not such checkpoints be abused?

It is important to remove the emotion from this issue and look at the issues as calmly as possible. Drunk driving is not safe, it is a danger to society, it is a crime: this is all fairly established fact. Laws are on the books that make it a serious crime in every state to operate a vehicle while under the influence. Why, then, does this problem continue? Is it because drunken drivers have rights that protect them from being caught breaking the law, and is it a good trade to give up Fourth Amendment rights in exchange for ostensible protection from such lawbreakers? Or is it because most people who choose to drive an automobile when drunk are simply in the grip of an insane addiction over which they are powerless. Perhaps we need to look harder at this problem in our society, the problem of substance abuse and addiction -- but this is a topic beyond our scope here.

While I am no less offended by senseless death and injury caused by helpless addicts or sociopaths, I am very concerned about a trend in the USA: More and more we are coming to the conclusion that we as a people have too many civil liberties. These liberties get in the way of effective law enforcement, and we believe that we need effective law enforcement more than ever. Our leaders cite the threat of terrorism, the war on drugs, and now the scourge of drunk driving, as reasons that we should willingly surrender the protections won for us in 1789.

There is a lot of press given to those who cry for the upholding of the Second Amendment, which many interpret as protecting the citizen's right to own firearms. Let us not forget: there are nine more amendments included in this historic document, and the liberties encoded therein constitute nothing less than the basis of our freedom from persecution by any government.

The founders of this nation were not given to complacency. They understood that government is a necessary evil, a dangerous center of power needed for defense and the regulation and/or provision of various services, but prone to self-importance and self-indulgence. They knew that they were setting up a system that would provide for the peaceful transfer of power from one government to another at regular intervals, and that there was no guarantee that such new governments would always be benevolent. For this reason they hammered out, over many years, the system under which we have prospered and thrived as a free people.

"Thirty-nine states, plus the District of Columbia, allow spot checks to catch drunk drivers, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)." Eighty percent of the United States feel that it should be legal, without probable cause, for police to stop an innocent citizen traveling legally in her automobile to determine if the driver is drunk. Washington State is somewhat unusual where this issue is concerned. Our State Supreme Court determined that this practice would violate the State Constitution. "The U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 upheld a Michigan checkpoint program, saying motorists' privacy rights were not violated." [Seattle Times 7 Jan '08.]

What is the right thing to do?

Shall we abridge our personal privacy and our right to travel freely in order to facilitate the arrest and prosecution of drunken drivers?

Or shall we rely on our present laws and constitution and expect law enforcement to observe drivers without interfering, stopping those that show erratic or unusually aggressive behavior: probable cause.

If you are a victim of drunken driving, or closely related to a victim -- if you have been directly affected -- you will likely be of the opinion that no measure is too drastic. I sympathize completely with your feelings. When you have lost a loved one or seen someone close to you injured needlessly it is quite normal to be angry and want to lash out at something or someone.

Suppose that a law is passed completely forbidding the use of cellular phones in automobiles. University of Utah researchers have determined that drivers using cellular phones, even hands-free, are every bit as dangerous as drivers who have been drinking. [University of Utah News Center] If we believe this, and we are as determined to prevent this problem -- and why wouldn't we be -- what measures will we take to catch drivers who talk on cellular phones?

Perhaps you will say that this is foolish, that there is no comparison, but suppose the claims that the UU psychologists made are upheld. Suppose that the use of cellular phones becomes recognized as the cause of thousands of traffic fatalities, and is made illegal. What are we to do to enforce this law? Shall we allow the government to monitor the cellular frequencies and identify cars with phone usage? Shall we trust that they will not abuse this permission and listen in a little more than is strictly necessary for the enforcement of the new law?

SMS or "text" messaging while driving has been specifically forbidden by law in Washington State as of the first of 2008. If there is an outcry to arrest those who break this law, what will we allow our government to do to facilitate that?

When asked about a loss of privacy in exchange for protection from criminals many people will answer "So what? I'm not doing anything wrong, I have nothing to hide. Let them monitor my cellular phone, my text messages, and let them stop me to check my sobriety. I'm a law-abiding citizen and I don't mind."

This is an attractive idea. After all, what is there to fear if one is not breaking the law?

As far as these laws and this government, we seem to have little to fear.

Remember, our laws and our government are designed to change. We have regular peaceful transfers of power, driven by the forces of politics. While the direction of those forces is one with which we agree, we are content to go along with abridgements of rights, because we wish to see the objectives of the government accomplished. Should the direction shift, will we not regret having given up protections once guaranteed that keep the government from trespassing into certain areas, areas such as privacy in our communications and the freedom to travel unhindered?

Germans and Austrians in 1939 learned that their legally elected National Socialist government could turn out to be something monstrous. Mussolini established his Fascist party in Italy and by 1926 had abolished free trade unions and the right to strike. [History.com article] With the perspective of history we wonder how the people of Europe could have been so blind as to allow these power-hungry dictators to take away their freedom.

Passing one State law is not going to lead us into Fascism and a World War -- but I fear that this is one more ugly step in a direction about which one of our founding fathers warned us:

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Let us not memorialize the loss of our loved ones by weakening our freedom.

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