Oklahoma troopers, deputies work hard to keep DUIs in check
The first driver corralled into the ENDUI checkpoint shows signs of impairment and is told to pull over.
It's 10:03 p.m., and a dozen Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers and Oklahoma County sheriff's deputies have closed down westbound lanes of Reno Avenue just east of Rockwell.
Two mobile computers to run license checks sit along the roadside. Traffic cones lit with electronic flares and law officers with flashlights guide the way.
“We close a lane and put four or five cars in that corral, and while we're talking to those people, traffic's on the other side moving past us because if we stop every car, it's going to back up and people are going to be stuck there for an unreasonable amount of time,” said trooper Ronnie Sites, who is organizing the checkpoint.
Law officers approach the driver's side windows of halted vehicles, sniffing for the aroma of alcohol or burned marijuana. A quick license and insurance check and a glance at the vehicle's tag and rear lights, and most of the motorists are back on the road in a minute or less.
“Most of the vehicles were only there for about 30 to 45 seconds. Some a little longer, some a little less. If a backup does occur, we will suspend the checkpoint and let traffic clear out,” Sites said.
As a highway patrol unit rolls into the checkpoint, a trooper gets on his loudspeaker.
“You're violating my constitutional right to driving,” he says to his colleagues, who chuckle and heckle back.
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Driving in the state of Oklahoma is a conditional and revocable privilege. It comes with a set of signed stipulations, among them giving consent to breath and blood tests if a law officer suspects a driver is impaired.
The ENDUI vehicle is equipped with a small lab that includes an Intoxilyzer, which measures blood alcohol levels. The first driver through the checkpoint has been detained and, in the deputy's judgment, has failed the field sobriety test.
Oklahoma County sheriff's Deputy Vince Barnard is one of the law officers conducting the tests. He's also the checkpoint's assigned drug recognition expert, trained in spotting cues and clues that drivers may be intoxicated on substances other than alcohol.
Barnard said the field sobriety test is the third phase of a law officer's assessment of an impaired driver, after watching driving behavior and talking to the person.
“Everyone knows what a normal person is supposed to be like. It's not a subjective thing, really. If they're not, we're going to go ahead and ask them to come out of the car, and we're going to further our investigation,” Barnard said.
The standardized field sobriety test, initially adopted by the Los Angeles Police Department, has three parts, as well, he said.
The first, called the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, is the one where a person follows the lighted tip of a pen. The law officer is looking for a lack of ability to track the pen seamlessly, and for a jerking movement of the eyes when the person is looking as far to the side as they can.
“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said if a person has got four out of six of those clues, there's an 88 percent chance that this person is intoxicated,” Barnard said.
“The next test is a walk-and-turn test, which is a series of nine steps, and it's conducted in two different sections. One is the instructional phase. We put them in a stance, and we tell them not to do anything else; we read them or tell them the instructions, and then we have them conduct the test. There's eight clues in that. If you demonstrate two of those eight, there's a 77 percent chance that you're intoxicated,” he said.
“Then the third test is what we call a one-leg stand where we have an individual choose what leg they want to stand on; they raise their foot six inches parallel to the ground keeping their legs straight and they count out loud for 30 seconds. There's four clues to that,” Barnard said.
“There's no pass or fail for these tests. They either did well, or they didn't do well. We take all of that together, and we have to come up with a decision. Do I make an arrest, or don't I make an arrest?” he said.
No blood tests are done at roadside checkpoints, but the ENDUI van does have the capability to give breath tests on scene. Refusing the state's test sets in motion the revocation process of a license.
‘Nothing for us to hide'
A woman who has admitted to drinking that night does just that. The deputy who stopped her smelled alcohol, and she showed enough physical signs of impairment to warrant arrest, but she has refused the state's test. Law officers do not force breath or blood tests upon detainees, Sites said.
A breath test also can mean the difference between a temporary detainment and a night spent being processed into the county jail.
“The Intoxilyzer is a scientifically valid and stable platform to determine somebody's blood alcohol content equivalent through their breath. At that point, they're booked into jail,” Barnard.
In the case of the first driver through the checkpoint, who set off warning bells for the deputy and also did poorly on his field sobriety test, the test results are conclusive. He has a blood alcohol content of 0.00.
“The officer that made the arrest and had the guy blow and he blew the zeros, he was seeing some of those indications in those three field sobriety tests, so what he does is ask for a second opinion from what we call a drug recognition expert,” Barnard said.
“The drug recognition experts would be able to come in and conduct a couple of other tests. We have a battery of 12 tests that include some sort of physiology testing such as blood pressure, temperature, things like that. And we wouldn't do that on the roadside,” he said.
After Barnard's assessment, the man's handcuffs are removed, and he's free to leave the scene.
“That's another advantage to having the van with us because that officer clearly thought that this guy might be under the influence, so we can just take him into the van and test him. There's times out there when that sobriety test is not effective and other times when it's extremely effective, so having that tool with us on scene is really invaluable,” Sites said.
ENDUI is designed strictly to catch impaired drivers and curb driving under the influence, not to cast a wide net and catch whatever criminals they can. Two people who had marijuana on them at the checkpoint were not arrested.
“In both cases the trooper could smell it, and whenever he mentioned it, they didn't try to beat around the truth. If we're going to take them for possession of marijuana and they're not impaired, that's going to take me off the checkpoint and off the street,” Sites said.
“Because they weren't impaired and they were truthful and honest, they didn't go to jail and didn't get their vehicle impounded,” he said.
“There were several people there that night that didn't have driver's licenses. Again, we're not there to get people without driver's licenses. We let them pull into a parking lot, a safe area, and we let them all call a ride. Not only did we let them call a ride, we let someone else come pick up their vehicle. Every officer on scene did a good job sticking to that plan and not straying to another thing,” Sites said.
At precisely midnight, the checkpoints stop. It takes only a few minutes to pull up the cones, shut down the computer terminals and get everything packed into the van.
“I know that there's people that have their minds made up about checkpoints and law enforcement, and you know what, really and truly, that's fine,” Sites said. “But if people want to see a checkpoint go on, we're in public places. They are more than welcome to come out and put up a chair and watch. I'd encourage it and give them a bottle of water if it's warm. There is nothing for us to hide out there.”
The night switches gears at this point, and saturation patrols begin.
The idea is to give law officers enough time to finish any paperwork they've started before cruising the streets during the hours when most drunken drivers are leaving bars and taking to the roads.
“All throughout the night, our dispatch will receive calls of potential drunk drivers. It's very critical to have as many people out there on the roads at that time rather than have them still tied up at a checkpoint at one location,” he said.
“If we had five troopers and 10 deputies and they all get a drunk driver that night, then we probably didn't saturate enough because everybody was arresting a drunk driver, so that means there were more that got away while officers are at the jail,” Sites said. “A saturation would be when we have more officers out on duty than we have DUI offenders arrested.”
At the end of the night, one drunken driver was nabbed at the checkpoint. Five others were pulled from the roads during the saturation patrols.
“People like to say you'll never end DUI, and, with that attitude, that's a guaranteed fact, but we're going to at least make a hard push and we're going to make every resource available for agencies and the public,” Sites said.
“I really believe that we might have prevented something. Could they have made it home? Well, absolutely they could've. But then again, maybe not. We're going to continue to do checkpoints and to do saturation patrols because the people that are out there innocently deserve it.”
Checkpoint by the numbers
Law officers conducted sobriety checkpoints on westbound Reno Avenue just east of Rockwell Avenue on Aug. 13 and 27.
Aug. 13 totals:
Checkpoint (10 p.m.
•1 DUI arrest
•1 possession of marijuana
•2 possession of marijuana
•5 DUI arrests
•11 no insurance citations
•1 expired tag citation
•1 no driver’s license citation
Aug. 27 totals:
Checkpoint (10 p.m.
to 3 a.m.)
•5 DUI arrests
•2 DUI arrests
•27 total citations and 16 vehicle impounds on Aug. 27, including:
•13 no driver’s license citations
•2 tag violation citations
•9 driving under suspension or revocation citations