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Roadblocks to Check Driver Sobriety OKd

Times Staff Writer

Just in time for the holiday season, the Supreme Court on Monday gave California law enforcement officials the go-ahead for setting up sobriety checkpoints on city streets.

With only two dissents, the high court rejected an Orange County man’s challenge to the constitutionality of a police roadblock that resulted in his arrest for drunk driving in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 1985.

With all legal questions resolved, state and local law enforcement authorities say that they plan to make frequent use of the tactic in the next month in an attempt to make the roads safer.

“We expect we will have between 60 and 80 checkpoints statewide over the upcoming holidays,” said Alice Huffaker, a California Highway Patrol spokeswoman.

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The checkpoints were halted when the issue was before the state Supreme Court but were resumed after a favorable ruling there last year. Since then, the CHP has set up 133 checkpoints around the state, stopped about 97,000 vehicles and made 1,041 arrests for suspected drunk driving.

In challenging the use of the technique before the high court, lawyers for the Orange County man--who was identified in court documents only as “Richard T.” but identified by a state Court of Appeal clerk as Robert Tuthill--contended that police roadblocks that stop all cars without evidence of illegal conduct violate a motorist’s right under the Fourth Amendment to be free of “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Attorneys for the state of California, however, maintained that the checks, which generally last less than 30 seconds per driver, are not unduely intrusive or disruptive.

Use Called Reasonable

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“Given the serious safety and social problems presented by drunk drivers and the minimal intrusion to privacy caused by a momentary detention . . . the use of these checkpoints is reasonable,” Deputy Atty. Gen. Jay M. Bloom said in a brief to the court.

The high court ruling helped to clarify what has been a gray area in the law related to such checks, in which police stop all traffic on a road during a particular period, inspect each motorist for signs of intoxication and quickly send those who appear sober on their way.

In most cases of criminal searches, the justices usually require that police have a “particularized suspicion” that a motorist or pedestrian has violated a law before they can stop him. For example, an officer would be justified in stopping a car he saw weaving in traffic, but would not be justified in stopping a car simply because he did not like the looks of the driver.

In what are called “highly regulated” industries or areas, however, the high court has been far more tolerant of government searches. For example, government inspectors can enter a business without a warrant to see whether fire codes or pollution standards are being violated. Similarly, airport officials routinely are permitted to screen and search all passengers for guns or drugs.

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Like Airport Searches

The California Supreme Court, when it upheld sobriety checkpoints on the 4-3 vote last year, concluded that they are closer to the regulatory searches at airports and international borders than to individual criminal searches. The U.S. Supreme Court has not issued a written ruling on sobriety checkpoints, but has refused to hear several challenges to state court opinions upholding them.

In Monday’s decision, only Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Byron R. White said they wanted to hear the challenge to the police checkpoints (Richard T. vs. California, 88-318).

Ronald E. Klar, an Orange County public defender who represented the driver in this case, said he found the court action to be troubling.

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“This is definitely a criminal search. As I understood the Fourth Amendment, the police are supposed to have a reasonable suspicion before they can detain a person,” Klar said in a telephone interview. “If you can stop every car in this situation, why can’t you stop every car in Santa Ana to look for drugs?”

Hailed by Van de Kamp

Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp hailed the decision as an “affirmation of California’s driver checkpoint program.”

“Coming early in the holiday season, it serves an an important reminder that those who indulge in holiday cheer should leave the driving to others,” he said in a statement.

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Tuthill, who was then 17, was stopped at a sobriety checkpoint on Knott Avenue near Lincoln Avenue in Anaheim, the scene of an unusually high number of fatal accidents, according to police.

An officer, smelling alcohol on the driver, asked him where he was coming from.

“From a party,” he replied, according to case records. The officer then pulled him aside for a sobriety test, which he failed. Tuthill was later convicted of drunk driving and fined.

Times staff writer Andrea Ford contributed to this story from Orange County.

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