Editorial: Anti-DUI effort is no cause for outrage

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

There may be no single cause in America today that elicits the kind of unanimous agreement as does the danger of drunken driving.

Posters in bars and restaurants remind us of the high cost of a citation for driving under the influence. Public awareness spots air frequently on TV. (“You drink, you drive, you lose,” warns one such campaign.) Alcoholic beverage companies use their advertising to promote responsible drinking. Especially around the holidays, Americans (specifically, American advertisers) add another superhero to the roster: the designated driver.

We may argue about a lot of things in this country, but we agree that drunken driving kills, is 100 percent preventable and should be avoided without exception.

So why is it that when the Illinois State Police announce a no-nonsense, anti-DUI detail to kick off the holiday season, a hefty segment of the public response is derision to the point of hysteria?

From Wednesday night until 6 a.m. Thanksgiving morning, state troopers from Springfield’s District 9 headquarters operated a so-called “no-refusal” DUI enforcement detail. If a trooper pulled a driver over for suspected drunken driving and that driver refused to submit to a breath test, the officer would seek a warrant ordering the breath test or the collection of a blood sample. The Sangamon County State’s Attorney’s Office had a duty attorney on call during the detail to field calls from troopers and seek search warrants from a judge in the event of noncompliant drivers.

These were not to be random stops or checkpoints in which all drivers would be subjected to tests. These were drivers who were pulled over for traffic infractions and showing signs of being under the influence.

Yet from the swift, voluminous and (largely) angry reaction to The State Journal-Register story that ran on Wednesday, you’d think the troopers were conducting random roadside strip searches.

Comments on the story on sj-r.com frequently invoked the Fourth and Fifth amendments in claiming this detail was unconstitutional. They claimed the compulsory breath/blood tests amounted to the unlawful search and seizure prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. Blowing into a breathalyzer amounted to the government forcing self-incriminating testimony, as forbidden by the Fifth Amendment. Repeatedly, Illinois was decried as a “police state.”

Sorry, folks, but this detail represented one of the most effective, common-sense measures to deter drunken drivers that we’ve seen in some time. From our perspective, it’s a shame that the frequency of DUI stops makes it impractical for police to obtain warrants more often.

It’s strange that there’s never much controversy when a judge signs a warrant to obtain a DNA sample from a suspect in a sexual assault case. Yet the same process is at work in “no-refusal” DUI stops. Unlawful search and seizure? The Constitution is pretty clear about the need for “probable cause,” which in DUI stops is self-evident. The Fifth Amendment? Providing your breath or a blood sample is not bearing witness against yourself any more than is a hair sample or cheek swab collected by investigators in other criminal cases. And nothing can happen until a judge signs off first.

Despite our public pledges against drunken driving, DUI cases remain among the most difficult for prosecutors to win. Defense attorneys frequently counsel their clients to refuse taking a breath test, even though that means an automatic license suspension. If lack of breath test results helps beat the DUI charge, they argue, it’s worth it.

Once a judge signs off on a search warrant, however, a DUI suspect has no choice, just as a suspected drug dealer has no choice when narcotics officers show up at the door with a warrant to search his home.

Last week’s detail resulted in four DUI arrests by state police in a nine-hour span. Troopers had to obtain warrants to test two of the drivers. (A court-ordered breath test found the driver’s blood alcohol level at .124; blood test results on the second driver weren’t yet available.) With the holiday season now begun, there’s no better time for more “no-refusal” details.

State Journal-Register