Tribune story sheds light on Berwyn’s unconstitutional DUI roadblocks

Thanks to our constitutional protections, drivers are supposed to be free from being stopped by the police unless there is either some articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot, or that there is an outstanding warrant for a person in the vehicle, or that the police, in their capacity as “community caretakers” see a valid reason to make an inquiry, for example, about the state of a person’s health.

However, our courts have created a constitutional exception which allows police to conduct roadblocks, but this police power has been limited by certain restrictions.  First purpose of the roadblock must outweigh the intrusion on motorists.  In addition, other factors include (a) whether the decision to establish the roadblock and its site was made by supervisory-level personnel; (b) whether the stops were made in a pre-established, systematic fashion (for example, stopping every fifth car); (c) there must be written guidelines on the operation of the roadblock; (d) it must be clear to motorists that this is an official police operation; and (e) there must be advance publicity to warn the public.

Yet, in today’s Chicago Tribune, there is a story by Angela Caputo showing that the Berwyn Police department which reveals that stops conducted in that City were not made in a pre-established, systematic fashion as required by law.

From the Tribune:

Police officials had ratcheted up the pressure on officers to fill a ticket quota, and a sworn statement by a Berwyn police official and obtained by the Tribune shows the department failed to follow federal guidelines in the stops, enabling police to make contact with more drivers than they might have otherwise.

The guidelines were created decades ago to give officers clear parameters for how to operate the stops in an effort to protect drivers from being profiled. The rules require departments to draft a protocol for randomly stopping drivers, and officers typically stop every third or fifth car to check for a valid driver’s license, insurance card and equipment violations. Some drivers are pulled into a secondary screening area, and their names are often run through the secretary of state’s records.

On June 28, 2014, a traffic light was reset to slow drivers as they passed through the single lane bounded by cones.As Berwyn officers steered select drivers into the parking lot of a Midas Muffler shop, a secondary checkpoint where tickets were handed out, deciding whose driving record to run or which car would be scrutinized for additional violations. “Multiple citations were written and some arrests were made,” according to the police report.

Berwyn police Chief Jim Ritz defended how his department handled that checkpoint and said they conducted others in the same manner although he did not immediately have specifics on those. He said his department’s “softer version” of roadside checks is sanctioned by the state.

“It shows that we’re out there,” Ritz said, “making the streets safer for people to drive on.”

Checks like the one in Berwyn that impede traffic do not follow IDOT protocol, agency spokesman Guy Tridgell said.

Berwyn is a mid-size near west suburb of about 57,000 people, yet it issued the third-most citations of any municipality in Illinois during the 2014 grant year through DUI patrols at night, behind only Chicago and Calumet City. The patrols included both roadside checks and other special enforcement and netted more than 1,700 citations. Less than 1 percent led to DUI arrests, the primary goal of the campaign, an analysis of state records shows.

It’s been 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court signed off on sobriety checkpoints, yet they remain a thorny civil liberties issue.

“It’s very important that there is a criteria for selecting cars that are going to be checked,” said Adam Schwartz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “It’s unconstitutional to have officers picking and choosing who they want to stop.”

When cars were diverted and the traffic signal was changed, experts say, it had all of the makings of a checkpoint. High ranking officers renamed the patrol a “flexible” roadside check, Police Department records show, but state transportation officials, who administer the federally funded enforcement, say the enforcement was not authorized.

DePaul University law professor Susan Bandes said the practice of setting up the stops without a neutral criteria — like randomly stopping every third or fifth car — amounted to an “open season” on drivers.

Ritz shrugged off the suggestion that the stops have been become ticket mills where drivers are primarily cited for relatively minor offenses. Correspondence obtained by the Tribune, however, illustrates the pressure within the department to issue citations if officers want to remain eligible for valuable overtime pay. In announcing the patrol last June, Sgt. Chris Anisi wrote in a departmentwide email: “Failure to write a sufficient number of tickets will affect the officer’s ability to work future grants.”

“Our goal,” he wrote, “is three tickets an hour.”

For every drunken driver arrested through the stops in Berwyn last year, an additional 145 tickets were handed out. More than half of the citations were for seat belt violations, a secondary goal of the enforcement. Statewide, nearly 90,000 similar violations were issued during DUI patrols and checkpoints in 2014. On average, 3 percent of the citations issued in Illinois amounted to a DUI arrest.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration funded the nighttime patrols with nearly $6.3 million, largely to cover overtime costs. Federal officials haven’t attached ticket quotas to the grant money for DUI crackdowns, but state transportation officials said they have adopted quotas as a “performance measure” to ensure accountability.

Once police officers have full discretion as to who they are going to investigate, the roadblock devolves into random police stops without justification.  Police can choose to harass people because of their race, ethnic background, age, perceived income level, or just because they are bored.  In other words, it becomes a police state.

Read the full story here (behind the Tribune’s paywall):

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