A DUI checkpoint in January in Old Town Goleta delivered a cold night for law enforcement—the mercury dropped to 42 degrees before the team of sheriff’s deputies left Hollister Avenue at 2 a.m.—and produced mixed short-term results. Long-term effects may be hard to measure but should not be discounted.
Winnowing the judgmentally impaired from driving under the influence of alcohol, or other drugs, is the primary reason for mandatory stops, but there is more to a checkpoint than that, explained Sgt. Kevin Huddle. “A lot of what we do is education,” said the supervisor in the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department’s Goleta Traffic Unit. “We’re letting people know we’re cleaning up the streets.”
That is why plans for checkpoints in a general area are usually announced in advance of the appointed date—though the specific locations are withheld.
Curious about how a checkpoint is run, I asked to observe one. The Sheriff’s Department, which contracts with the City of Goleta as its police force, invited me to a Saturday, January 2, operation opposite the Goleta Valley Community Center.
When I pulled up around 8 p.m. a full, lemon-colored moon was rising, and a truck with a generator trailer crowned with bright lights squatted in mid-street. The powerful beams illuminated a single lane of Hollister Avenue into which orange cones channeled the westbound flow of vehicles. “Present Drivers License” ordered a sign at the beginning of the cone pattern, which funneled drivers in single file under the spotlights and halted them near deputies stationed along the length of the corridor.
Wearing light-reflective safety vests, the deputies approached the vehicles at roughly the same time, politely explained their purpose, and asked the drivers to produce documents. Though they carried flashlights instead of poles, they were fishing for drivers without licenses, registrations, or proofs of insurance, as well as those suspected of intoxication. The officers were also surveying the vehicles for possible mandatory repairs.
Huddle, who organized a checkpoint on Los Carneros Road Friday, December 18, as well as the Saturday, January 2 one on Hollister, chose these dates because “more people drive impaired on weekends.” While officers ask the drivers if they have consumed alcohol, physical clues are also assessed that may lead to a field sobriety test, I was told. Bloodshot eyes or slurred words can help establish “probable cause” for the test. But it usually comes down to an officer’s judgment and experience.
If a driver has no problems he or she is “on their way in usually less than a minute,” estimated Huddle. “Once running, (the checkpoint team) is like a well-oiled machine.”
If there is a problem, the driver and vehicle will be diverted to a nearby “investigation area,” out of traffic and conveniently near a tow truck. An extensive interview and sobriety test may be conducted there.
During the 90 minutes I was at the checkpoint only one driver was pulled aside and cited for driving on a suspended license, not on suspicion of DUI. His Hyundai SUV was towed. The only other activity I saw was the checkpoint’s radar-equipped chase car stopping two vehicles on the eastbound side of Hollister.
After I left, the team conducted 20 field sobriety tests, but no drivers were arrested on DUIs, according to Huddle. Three traffic citations were issued and one meth pipe confiscated.
“It was a very slow night in Goleta,” said Huddle, who reported that 385 vehicles passed through the Hollister checkpoint. This compared to the pre-Christmas checkpoint at Los Carneros when 542 vehicles were stopped, resulting in 20 sobriety tests, two DUI arrests, and nine cars towed.
Santa Barbara city police claimed even fewer cars—220—from two post-Christmas checkpoints, but results similar to Goleta’s for total DUI arrests and towed vehicles.
Other locations in the county proved busier. News media reported that between December 18 and January 3, law enforcement ran a countywide, multijurisdictional anti-DUI campaign called “Avoid the 12.” The 12 cooperating agencies staffed 59 checkpoints and sent CHP cars to prowl the highways in what are termed “saturation patrols.”
This produced 225 DUI arrests, in addition to the three gathered in this period in Goleta and Santa Barbara. Though the arrest total was 40 percent higher than in 2008-09, and DUI-related accidents dropped 45 percent, at least one drunken driver avoided the crackdown. The result was the death of an innocent 22-year-old man from Santa Maria.
I do not know how many other fatalities were averted by the cooperative crackdown on people driving under the influence. However, we who benefit from preventive measures can contribute to our own safety by calling 9-1-1 whenever we spot a likely impaired driver. No need to wait for the holidays.