The national movement against drunken driving, inspiration for widespread changes in American law in the 1980s, has begun its first major battle with civil libertarians over the growing use of police checkpoints as a means of catching intoxicated drivers.
As the year-end holiday season approaches with its expected surge of drunken-driving fatalities, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit to stop a new sobriety-checkpoint program in California. The ACLU says the program is a "substantial invasion of . . . fundamental constitutional rights."
A spokesman said other ACLU chapters are considering similar suits as police and politicians throughout the country have concluded that the roadblocks are an effective way to reduce highway casualties.
In its California brief, pending at the state Court of Appeals in San Francisco, the ACLU argues that if sobriety checkpoints are upheld "it will not be long before the police establish roadblocks and checkpoints for investigations of other sorts of serious crimes."
Courts in New Jersey, Kansas, New York and Maryland have approved such checkpoints while courts in South Dakota, Oklahoma and Illinois have ruled that they violate the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures."
Ronald Niver, the California deputy attorney general defending against the ACLU suit, said he expects the issue to reach the U.S. Supreme Court "two to three years from today." In the meantime, the ACLU effort has drawn the fire of politically potent national groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), that have forced the Congress and many state legislatures to raise the drinking age and toughen penalties for drunken drivers.
"They are overlooking the civil rights of the victims," said Barbara Bloomberg, president of MADD's Los Angeles chapter. "The ACLU has a very convoluted outlook on life."
California Attorney General John K. Van de Kamp, frequently mentioned as a future gubernatorial candidate, told a news conference, "You bet there are civil rights involved -- the civil rights of the victims of drunk drivers and their families." His office launched the program with a legal opinion calling well-marked roadblocks constitutional if police follow a set procedure, such as stopping every fifth car and spending only a few seconds questioning each driver.
Van de Kamp cited public opinion polls he said showed that 51 percent of Americans, and 88 percent of a selection of D.C. motorists, favored sobriety checkpoints. Anne Seymour, assistant to MADD national president Candy Lightner, said she and Lightner just returned from observing checkpoints in Sweden and Norway, where no motorist complained about being stopped.
But, in a declaration filed with the ACLU suit, San Francisco resident Robert L. Vogel complained about being stopped the night of Friday, Nov. 16, in Burlingame, Calif., and asked if he had been drinking or taking drugs.
"I definitely felt a great police presence," Vogel said. "Even though I had done nothing wrong, I was afraid I might be forced to . . . take sobriety tests."
As in other parts of the country, Washington-area experts disagree over the usefulness of checkpoints. Police in Montgomery and Prince George's counties have reported sharp drops in alcohol-related accidents after using holiday roadblocks. A Maryland motorist convicted of drunken driving, who declined ACLU help with his case, lost in the state Court of Appeals when he tried to challenge the checkpoints on constitutional grounds.
Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the national capital-area ACLU, said he had not challenged the procedure in the District because Metropolitan police did not appear to be using it very often.
D.C. Police Capt. James G. Bruncos said sobriety checkpoints had been tried four times in 1983 but not this year. "It's idiotic to scare people with roadblocks," he said. "You have to educate people."
Fairfax City police spokesman Tom Welle said his is the only Northern Virginia jurisdiction using checkpoints.
"We feel that they have been very successful . . . people know it doesn't pay to drink and drive in Fairfax City," he said. Checkpoints usually operate on Rte. 50, where there are many bars and restaurants.