“The police are there to make sure the ‘volunteer requests’ are backed up by the implied threat of force.”
In order to curb the number of people driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it established federal roadside checkpoints about 40 years ago to survey and collect DNA from drivers.
Each year some 10,000 people die in a drunk driving-related traffic accident, according to estimates from the NHTSA, or about 27 people every day.
But now, citing a violation of their constitutional rights and fear of the creation of a police state, citizens and local police and sheriffs departments are pushing back against the use of these checkpoints, arguing that they violate their Fourth Amendment rights and protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Run by off-duty but uniformed police officers, law enforcement officials at these checkpoints ask drivers to “voluntarily” pull over and provide a DNA and blood sample, for which they will be financially reimbursed.
At these stops, drivers are reportedly offered $10 for cheek swabs and $50 for blood samples, and are told that the samples are being used for a study by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. If a driver refuses to participate at first, the price offered to drivers often increases. As a result, some drivers have been offered as much as $100 for a blood sample.
But after hearing repeated concerns from the public about the constitutionality of these checkpoints, several local police agencies announced earlier this month they would no longer be participating in the collection of blood, saliva and breath samples on behalf of the NHTSA-commissioned study.
Mary Catherine Roper is a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, who started studying the issue after motorists began to complain about a local checkpoint in Reading, Penn. Talking to USA Today, Roper said that although the checkpoints are technically voluntary from a legal standpoint, to motorists the checkpoint doesn’t appear voluntary at all, which is a constitutional problem.
“Normally, police cannot pull you over unless they have a good reason for thinking you’ve done something wrong,” Roper said. “There’s no exemption to the Constitution for conducting a survey. They’re pulling people off the road.”
Forced voluntary compliance
Even if a driver knows they don’t have to legally participate in the collection of DNA study, many are finding that they are not being allowed to leave without giving a DNA sample first. Kim Cope of North Fort Worth, Texas, experienced this firsthand. Cope said that on Nov. 15 she was forced off the road and into a parking lot where an officer pressured her to give a breath sample.
”I gestured to the guy in front that I just wanted to go straight, but he wouldn’t let me and forced me into a parking spot,” she said. “They were asking for cheek swabs. They would give $10 for that. Also, if you let them take your blood, they would pay you $50 for that. I finally did the Breathalyzer test just because I thought that would be the easiest way to leave.”
Carl Olund, of Fort Worth, Texas, said he was pressured into providing breath and saliva samples to the federal agents at a checkpoint because he felt that if he didn’t cooperate he would have four or five cops chasing after him.
“It just doesn’t seem right that you can be forced off the road when you’re not doing anything wrong,” Cope said. “None of it felt voluntary.”
Despite the backlash, the NHTSA has continued to defend its program, saying that, “The survey provides useful data about alcohol and drug use by drivers, and participation is completely voluntary and anonymous.
“More than 60 communities across the country will participate this year, many of which participated in the previous survey in 2007,” the agency said. “NHTSA always works closely with state and local safety officials and local law enforcement to conduct these surveys as we work to better inform our efforts to reduce drunk and drugged driving.”
But if the study really is supposed to be a scientific study examining the amount of alcohol and drugs in anonymous drivers’ systems, then why aren’t the checkpoints staffed with scientists in lab coats, asked Mike Adams, editor of NaturalNews.com.
Adams said that no one would give the scientists any information or samples, but “when police carrying guns walk up to your car at a roadblock and ask if you will ‘volunteer’ some samples of your blood and DNA, that’s more than a bit coercive.
“The police are there to make sure the ‘volunteer requests’ are backed up by the implied threat of force. A roadblock staffed by men with guns is going to get a lot more ‘compliance’ than a roadside volunteer booth staffed by a bunch of lab geeks.
“And that’s why this little police state experiment is a gross abuse of police power and a violation of the civil rights of those targeted in the study,” Adams said. “Besides, since when did scientists have to use police to collect data for their studies, anyway?”
Roper agreed and said that there are many other places the NHTSA and its subcontractors could survey drivers without forcing them off the road, including toll booths and highway rest stops.
Law enforcement pushes back
Though the constitutionality of checkpoints has been called into question for years by civil rights groups such as the ACLU, this may be the first time that lawmakers and law enforcement agree that a checkpoint may have gone too far.
Tom Neer is the sheriff in St. Charles County, Mo., and authorized deputies to participate in a checkpoint in December. He said he will never “cooperate with one of these federal checkpoints again,” continuing on to add that his department “would not have contracted with the subcontractor on this one if we had known in advance that our officers would be asked to flag down motorists.
“In essence, we got duped, and shame on me,” Neer said.
St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch agreed the checkpoints were a bad idea and said he did not have prior knowledge of them, but has since forbidden his officers from participating in them in the future.
“I don’t think it’s proper use of law enforcement authority to flag people to the side of road for the voluntary testing of anything,” Fitch said, adding that these voluntary stops should perhaps only be done at regulated sobriety checkpoints.
But unlike the ACLU and other civil liberties groups who are concerned about the increasing presence of a police state in the U.S., law enforcement’s issue with the checkpoints seems to be more of a PR-issue than a constitutional one. Law enforcement officials also are slightly peeved that they were not entirely informed with what occurred at these checkpoints.
Neer for one, said that if these checkpoints would have been operating five years ago, the public wouldn’t be so outraged, since the perception of the American public right now is that people should not trust the government.
But Adams disagrees and says the study is more about testing whether the U.S. has become a police state yet or not, and says the number of people in American society “willing to let some government goon swab their DNA when commanded to do so.”
“If the real purpose of the roadblocks is to collect blood samples for a study documenting alcohol levels of random drivers — as it claimed by the study organizers — then they need to go back to school and learn about scientific methods,” Adams said.
“Because all you’re going to get in this study is a self-selected sample of blood and DNA from the most timid, easy-to-dominate sheeple [sic] of society … or people who live on such low incomes that $10 seems to be fair compensation for allowing the government to swipe their DNA and archive it in a database.”