A bill advancing through the Missouri House that calls for a ban of checkpoints for those who get behind the wheel intoxicated has outraged a group dedicated to fighting drunken driving.

If the bill passes, Missouri voters would decide whether to ban such checkpoints by passing a constitutional amendment. The bill includes exceptions for checkpoints related to civil unrest or fleeing felons.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Justin Hill, R-Lake St. Louis, has made moves against the checkpoints before. In 2017, he led an effort to redirect funding from such checkpoints to saturation patrols, a strategy he said is better for spotting drunken drivers.

“In my experience as a law enforcement officer, they were not an effective tool for eradicating DWI cases,” Hill said. “Saturation patrols are a force multiplier. They put more police on the street, who are specifically looking for DWI cases that already have probable cause, as opposed to stopping people at a random checkpoint.”

Yet the use of checkpoints persists.

Capt. John Hotz, a spokesperson for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said the patrol still uses both checkpoints and saturation patrols to catch violators.

“The Missouri State Highway Patrol continues to utilize the state statutes that we have to remove impaired drivers from Missouri highways through routine patrol and DWI saturations,” Hotz said. “Removing impaired drivers is an enforcement priority for the patrol.”

In its 2019 Highway Safety Plan, the state Department of Public Safety encouraged law enforcement agencies to continue using DWI checkpoints by finding other funds for them.

Joplin experience

The Joplin Police Department conducted one on March 19. Stationed at Seventh Street and Illinois Avenue, the checkpoint resulted in 10 DWI arrests, as well as two arrests on warrants and eight tickets. A total of 2,022 drivers were checked out by officers, and 17 field sobriety tests were conducted.

The checkpoint was held with the assistance of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Southwest Missouri DWI Task Force, and it was funded entirely by the department.

Traffic Sgt. Jared Delzell said over the past few years the Joplin Police Department has conducted mainly saturation patrols, which are usually more covert. DWI checkpoints are meant to be visible, he said.

March’s checkpoint was organized in response to a higher number of accident-related deaths last year — six of the 12 deaths over the past year were impairment-related, he said.

“DWI checkpoints provide a significant impact with regard to deterrence,” Delzell said. “If someone drives through a checkpoint, the average contact is less than 30 seconds, but they see all the lights and cones. ... What an impact that can make visually on someone who may be headed out to drink or go to a club.”

Delzell said both types of efforts produce about the same arrest numbers. For example, in 2018, the department used a saturation patrol instead of a checkpoint for St. Patrick’s Day-related driving. The results were similar:

In 2017, 10 DWI suspects were arrested in a checkpoint that ran for about 4 1/2 hours during the St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

In 2018, 20 drunken driving arrests were made within city limits over two nights of patrols.

Bill response

Officials with MADD oppose Hill’s bill and are calling on a state House committee on administrative oversight to reject it.

“Sobriety checkpoints are one of many tools for law enforcement when it comes to making DWI arrests and, more importantly, for deterring DWI attempts,” said Meghan Carter, director of field operations for MADD Missouri. “This is a roadblock set up by police. It is highly publicized and visible and is a vital tool.”

Hill relies on both data and personal experience to make his point about the effectiveness of saturation patrols. He said that as a police sergeant in O’Fallon, he supervised both types of exercises and found the saturation patrols to be more effective.

He also faulted checkpoints as being too invasive because each checkpoint generates a variety of arrests.

“With checkpoints, you see how many DUI arrests, but what you also see in the data is that they are counting warrant arrests,” Hill said. “It’s a dragnet for fine collection most of the time.”

Hill referred to data from the state about how saturation patrols are more effective. But Globe attempts to find such data did not turn up any. Hotz and a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety both said no state studies exist about the effectiveness of saturation patrols.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a review of 11 “high-quality” studies of DWI checkpoints and finds them to reduce alcohol-related crashes. Saturation patrols were also found to be effective, but finding studies on them is more difficult, the CDC reported.

Carter said both are effective tools and that one shouldn’t be chosen over the other.

“When you look at the numbers between the two, it’s almost like comparing apples and oranges,” Carter said. “Each and every community and county operates differently. It’s up to law enforcement officers to choose the tools that work best for them. We should keep both available because we know they save lives.”

Hill recognizes his bill is a long shot for this session. It has been referred to the House’s Rules-Administrative Oversight Committee, but with about a month left in the legislative session, full passage from both the House and Senate seems unlikely, he said.

“It has to move very fast at this point,” Hill said. “I don’t expect to get it done this year, but I will file it again next year. I think it can get to a point where it can be passed.”

 

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Joe Hadsall is the digital editor for The Joplin Globe. He has been the editor of the former Nixa News-Enterprise and has worked for the Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine.