Calling sobriety checkpoint roadblocks something he might expect to see "in Russia or Hitler-occupied Germany," a legislator today asked a House committee to pass a law that would make the roadblocks illegal.
The bill introduced by Del. Terry Connelly (D-Baltimore County) was heard by the House Judiciary Committee on the same day that Gov. Harry Hughes announced that he wants to extend the state's three-month-old program of stopping cars late at night at designated checkpoints to nab drunk drivers.
"I'm not one for introducing controversial bills," said Connelly. "But I have three problems with the checkpoints. First, I'm not sure they are constitutional. Second, I don't think the governor should just start something without legislative approval, and third, I don't like them. I think our current drunk driving laws are more than adequate for dealing with the drunk driver on the road today."
John Roemer, a lawyer for the ACLU, argued the constitutionality question in siding with Connelly. "What happens next?" he asked. "Do we next set up checkpoints for school kids on the grounds they may be taking drugs or alcohol into school? Do we stop people going into shopping centers to see what they have on them and call it a minimal intrusion into our lives? Where does this stop?"
Connelly's bill was opposed by representatives of the state police and local police departments from around the state who have operated the roadblocks for more than a year.
The police cited statistics showing a drop off in the number of traffic deaths related to alcohol since they began cracking down on drunk drivers in several ways, including the checkpoints.
"The best thing you can do for Maryland is to bury this bill and forget about it," said Prince George's County police chief Jack McHale.
When Col. William H. Travers, superintendent of the state police, finished his testimony against the bill, Del. Jerry H. Hyatt (D-Montgomery) asked if sobriety checkpoints would be set up around Annapolis tonight, given the partying that takes place here on St. Patrick's Day.
"No sir, they won't be," said Travers with a smile.
"You think they're trying to get on the good side of the legislature?" one committee member said later.
Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs told Hughes in December that he thought the stops were constituional as long as they were for everyone on the road and not done at random.
"No one is stopped or inconvenienced for more than a few seconds unless there is probable cause for detaining them longer," Sachs added today. As for Connelly's comparison to Russia and Nazi Germany, Sachs said, "I think to put it very gently, that comparison is extremely excessive."
No one from Hughes' staff testified, choosing to let Travers be the administration's spokesman.
Hughes' spokesman Lou Panos would not comment on whether Hughes would veto the bill if it reached his desk for signature but said, "The state police consider the checkpoints extremely successful in the three months they have been used and feel if they help cut down on senseless death on the highway, they should be continued."
More than 6,000 people have been stopped in three counties since the state began the sobriety checkpoint program three months ago on an experimental basis and there have been 23 arrests.
But state police said the deterrent factor is far more significant than the number of arrests. One story cited was of an Allegany County woman who called the police to complain about the checkpoints. "Every night my husband calls me at the American Legion to drive him home," the woman reportedly said. That, police say, is the point of the program: keeping the drinking driver off the road.