TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that if they’re conducted properly, sobriety checkpoints do not constitute illegal search and seizure, in most states.
The decision held that the interest in reducing alcohol-impaired driving was sufficient to justify the brief intrusion of a properly conducted sobriety checkpoint.
“We understand that some think checkpoints violate the Fourth Amendment,” said Tahlequah Police Chief Nate King. “However, both Oklahoma Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have found that checkpoints are legal.”
Checkpoints are used randomly to check primarily for sobriety and driver’s license and insurance verification. Most states, including Oklahoma, allow sobriety checkpoints, during which suspicious drivers are subject to sobriety tests.
The Daily Press recently conducted a Facebook Forum wherein it asked citizens what they thought about the legality of random checkpoints.
“I don’t mind DUI checkpoints because I feel there is no excuse for impaired driving,” said Brandon Eubanks. “Drunk driving constitutes what I think of as a crime against the community. However, using them as random search points and running ID, I am not nearly as OK with.”
According to guidelines passed by the Tahlequah City Council on Oct. 3, 2005, the TPD may conduct random driver’s license and safety stops to check driver’s license and mechanical condition of vehicles. Officers are expected to be alert for other violations of the law. It reads: “Officers shall use care and good judgment in placing checkpoints at locations that will not endanger the public or the officer.”
Night checks will be conducted at the supervisor’s discretion, and officers shall follow guidelines in accordance with federal, state and municipal laws.
Some citizens believe authorities use checkpoints as a form of harassment.
“I’ve had too many friends and family have this used as a reason to harass them and throw them on the ground, because small-town cops and brown people… pretextual stops have been used forever as ‘reasonable suspicion,'” Izzy Rayovac said on Facebook. “When you get pulled out with a gun to your head while your 5-year-old is in the car watching, just because of the way you look, you tend to think a bit differently. If using the checkpoint as a pretext for stop is finally made unlawful, then I’d feel safe with DUI checks. There is no accountability these days and until there is, it’s not worth the risk.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a sobriety checkpoint is a predetermined location at which law enforcement officers stop vehicles to check whether the driver is impaired. They either stop every vehicle or stop them at some regular interval, such as every third or 10th vehicle.
“While performing checkpoints, we have to have some type of pattern where we randomly stop every other car, stop every car, and so on,” King said.
At sobriety checkpoints, law enforcement officials evaluate drivers for signs of alcohol or drug impairment at certain points on the roadway.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol Troop C, Lt. Bill Golden said each department has its own policies to follow on how to perform checkpoints. Checkpoints performed by the OHP Troop C must have a minimum of two officers, be conducted in a safe area, and receive supervisor approval.
The CDC stated the purpose of checkpoints is to deter driving after drinking by increasing the perceived risk of arrest. To do this, checkpoints should be highly visible, publicized extensively, and conducted regularly.
Cherokee County Undersheriff Jason Chennault said while the sheriff’s office doesn’t typically participate in checkpoints, sobriety checkpoints have to be publicized before they are conducted.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in 2016 that there were 10,497 drunken driving deaths across the nation.
OHP Lt. Golden said while performing random checkpoints, the OHP typically checks for vehicle defects, driver’s license and security verification, and sobriety.
“DUI arrests are high in Cherokee County, particularly during the summer,” he said.
The CDC reported that sobriety checkpoints can potentially prevent nearly one out of 10 DUI-related deaths, reducing impaired driving crashes and deaths by a median of 9 percent.
“Checkpoints do help reduce the amount of impaired driver’s,” King said.
NHTSA defines a sobriety checkpoint as the stopping of vehicles, or a specific sequence of vehicles, at a predetermined fixed location to detect drivers who are impaired by alcohol or other drugs.
For instance, while conducting a checkpoint in 2015, TPD, OHP and the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service arrested Nicholas Ryan Renfro, 25, after observing he had “exaggerated reflexes” and displayed signs of impairment.
He was arrested for possession of a controlled dangerous substance, driving while under the influence of drugs, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of more than $1,300 in counterfeit bills.
According to Oklahoma statutes, any person operating a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol or any other substance, shall be subject to a fine of not less than $100, not more than $500, not more than six months’ imprisonment or a fine and imprisonment.
Upon conviction, the Department of Public Safety shall suspend that person’s driving privilege. The first suspension would be for 30 days.
King said TPD has participated in at least five checkpoints this year, but he could not determine how many citations were issued.