Tennessee’s Public Safety chief maintains that the use of sobriety checkpoints by state law enforcement is an important tool that deters intoxicated driving despite the department’s acknowledgment that roadblocks don’t net many arrests.
Since Bill Haslam won his first term as governor in 2010, there’s been a 147 percent increase in DUI arrests in Tennessee, according to Bill Gibbons, a former Shelby County prosecutor who was tapped four years ago by Haslam to lead the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
During his department’s budget presentation to the governor and his administration’s finance staff Wednesday, Gibbons described the increase as “really pretty dramatic.”
“As of the end of October we had 6,670 DUI arrests by troopers; that should be around 8,000 by the end of the year,” Gibbons said. As of Dec. 4, THP DUI arrests had climbed to 7,776, according to Safety Department figures.
According to Department of Safety numbers, the Tennessee Highway Patrol made 3,376 DUI arrests in 2010, 4,691 in 2011, 5,878 in 2012, and 6,457 in 2013.
Gibbons said that troopers under his watch have focused more attention on arresting drunk drivers. As a result, he said, Tennessee’s “impaired fatality rate” has also been lowered from 28 percent of fatalities in 2010 to 20 percent this year.
During the hearing Wednesday, Haslam asked if the increase in arrests was the result of increased patrols or of holding more roadblocks, and while neither Gibbons, nor Col. Tracy Trott, the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s commanding officer, had a breakdown of the method of arrests, Trott said, “I would think a small percentage would be at road blocks.”
“Most of it’s on line patrols and special enforcement actions,” he said.
In terms of general Department of Safety budget discussions, Gibbons’s proposal of cutting $9 million — in keeping with the 7 percent snip the governor is asking all agencies to calculate — included doing away with 115 positions, 73 of which are patrol troopers. Gibbons warned though that the cuts he came up with would in fact endanger public safety.
With respect to the increase in DUI arrests, department officials said, driving the surge is the use of predictive analytics and “data-driven enforcement” — figuring out where you’re most likely to encounter a problem. “But I think it’s also an emphasis by us, because early on in the administration we determined that nationwide a third of your traffic fatalities are caused by an impaired driver, so we wanted to devote as much attention and resources to that,” Trott said.
However, Gibbons said he still feels the roadblocks are an integral part of the state’s effort to “reduce the number of people driving under the influence.”
“I mean, we have to publicize when we’re going to have a checkpoint,” Gibbons said. “Frankly, that probably serves as a deterrent to individuals driving under the influence. So, if nothing else, it serves that purpose.”
A 2003 comparative analysis by the FBI on DUI enforcement indicated that while checkpoints, with “aggressive media coverage,” may certainly have a deterrent effect, “saturation patrols” — which concentrate on impaired driver behavior — are better at catching “repeat offenders, who are likely to avoid detection at sobriety checkpoints.”
Additionally, some law enforcement officials and federal lawmakers have in the past argued that knowing where checkpoints are held could just allow clever drunk drivers to avoid checkpoints.
On Dec. 1, THP was awarded nearly $717,000 in sobriety checkpoint grants for use through the end of September 2015 through the Sober Up TN program.
In 2012, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing no-refusal blood draw checkpoints, of which state law enforcement agencies have held several since, generally around holidays such as Labor Day, the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve.
In a 1990 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found by a 6-3 vote that properly conducted sobriety checkpoints are constitutional. However, the recently enacted “no refusal” checkpoints still face challenges to their constitutionality.
And last week, Tennessee law enforcement agencies again made national news after being caught on camera reportedly “lying” to motorists during a Thanksgiving Day “field sobriety checkpoint.”