House budget committee votes to continue barring state funding for DUI checkpoints

The House Budget Committee has proposed a state spending plan that would continue to keep state-appropriated funds from going to impaired driving checkpoints.

Representative Kathie Conway (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

Last year the House proposed that $20-million made available for grants to law enforcement agencies not be allowed for use in checkpoints.  That proposal became part of the final budget plan for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2017.  Law enforcement agencies can conduct checkpoints but have to find other ways to pay for them.

The idea was controversial but has the backing of House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob), who cited data from the Department of Transportation showing saturation efforts – periods of increased law enforcement patrols on the roads – result in more arrests per dollar.

Representative Kathie Conway (R-St. Charles) remains adamant in her opposition to the prohibition.  She proposed letting $500,000 be used on checkpoints in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget, and argued that checkpoints are effective.

“Checkpoints are not really used to catch drunk drivers and impaired drivers.  They’re mostly to make the public aware of the risk of being caught,” said Conway.  “There’s been ten studies reported in five separate papers that the impact of sobriety checkpoints showed relative decrease in alcohol-related crash fatalities of 9-percent, and that’s just the fatalities.  Two of these studies showed a decrease of 64-percent in one and 28-percent in the other of blood alcohol content above the legal limit.”

Those who supported barring state-appropriated funds from going to checkpoints last year stood by their decision.  Representative Justin Hill (R-Lake St. Louis) said what’s happened in the last year shows it was correct.

“We were pretty confident last year when we spoke about focusing this fund to methods that work and actually remove drunk drivers off the road because after all, that is the goal – to arrest drunk drivers and get them off the road to make our roads safer,” said Hill.  “In the first six months, without using these funds to use checkpoints, we saw an increase of 15-percent statewide in DWI arrests, and you know some may say that’s kind of a long shot to say that’s due to the lack of checkpoints, but I truly believe that sometimes this body has to make tough decisions to force the hand to do what not only is right, but to do what’s effective and efficient.”

Representative Peter Merideth (D-St. Louis) supported the partial opening up of state funds to checkpoints.  He said he believes checkpoints are effective, at least when used in conjunction with other things like saturation efforts.  He also believes checkpoints are fairer.

“What I would point out is that when we rely solely on individual officers pulling over individual vehicles we have significant research and evidence that those stops much more disproportionately impact poor and minority communities, and at the very least a checkpoint is a uniform way to check everybody fairly, regardless of your color, regardless of the type of car you drive,” said Merideth.

Representative Justin Hill (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

Many backers of the prohibition on state funds being used for checkpoints say checkpoints are unconstitutional because vehicles are stopped without probable cause.  Yukon Republican Robert Ross said while he supports law enforcement and knows Conway does too, he said the issue is one of due process.

“Checkpoints are a system of being guilty until you can prove yourself innocent.  That’s exactly counterintuitive to the way this country was set up and how we should operate,” said Ross.

The committee rejected Conway’s amendment.  If that decision stands through the completion of a budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2019, the prohibition on state-appropriated funds being used for checkpoints would continue.  Conway said she would continue to try to lift it.

“I’ve stood in crowds of 200 and 300 police officers that were going out to do saturation and/or DUI checkpoints.  They’re very enthusiastic about their programs.  I’ve stood and talked with parents and spouses and children of people that were killed by drunk driving and they’re very supportive of DUI checkpoints; in some places it’s up to a 70-percent approval of the citizens where checkpoints are used,” said Conway.  “For some it simply boils down to a constitutional issue and their minds will not be changed, but I think it’s also – since it has been found constitutional under both Missouri and United States Supreme Courts – that until that changes we have to go with the constitutionality of it, and I must say that public safety is always at the forefront of most things that I do.”

The full House, when lawmakers return from spring break next week, will debate the proposal that was passed out of the chamber’s Budget Committee.  The issue could be debated again then.

Likely fewer DUI checkpoints in Missouri under new state budget

The state budget that went into effect July 1 could lead to fewer impaired driving checkpoints but more periods of increased law enforcement presence on Missouri roads.

Representative Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Under language the House proposed no money controlled by that budget can be used on checkpoints.  Specifically, $20-million available for grants that law enforcement agencies have used to fund various efforts now cannot be used for checkpoints.

Supporters said data from the Department of Transportation show that periods of having more officers on the roads, often called “saturation efforts,” get more results for the money invested.

MODOT reported that in the year that ended July 1, 2016, saturation efforts resulted in 3,055 arrests at a cost of $704 per arrest, compared 1,201 arrests at checkpoints at a cost of $1,047 per arrest.   Over the three years through July 1, 2016, saturation periods yielded 9,288 arrests at $704 apiece compared to 4,152 arrests at checkpoints costing $919 each.

A comparison by House staff of states in which checkpoints are legal with states in which they are not found that the latter had a slightly lower number of drunk driving fatalities per capita.

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) said the new language was about making the most effective use of Missouri budget dollars and taking the most effective action toward making roads safer.

“I was convinced by the data … that it’s a better use of money, and it saves more lives by getting more drunk drivers off the road and it does so at a lower cost,” said Fitzpatrick.  “From a budgeting perspective it’s hard to argue in any way that checkpoints are the more effective method than saturation patrols.”

Representative Justin Hill (R-Lake St. Louis), a former O’Fallon Police officer, supported the restriction.

“What we’re going to see is better bang for the taxpayer’s buck because when you put an officer out there and say, ‘Go get an impaired driver,’ for four hours, chances are the officer’s going to find one, but when you add all those officers on one single checkpoint … they average anywhere from three to five.  For 20 officers that’s just not effective use of taxpayer dollars,” said Hill.

Representative Kathie Conway (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The prohibition was strongly opposed by St. Charles Republican Kathie Conway, who chairs the budget subcommittee on Public Safety.  She argues it’s misleading to say saturation patrols yield more arrests.

Conway said saturation efforts and checkpoints work together, first by publicizing checkpoints on social media and traffic announcements.

“That drives people away from that checkpoint.  Then the saturation on the perimeters of that, because there’s only so many ways to avoid that checkpoint, they catch them,” said Conway.  “So to say they don’t catch people at check points … if you want to get technical about it they’re not, but having that checkpoint they know where the people are going to be going to avoid it.”

From now through June 30, 2018, Missouri law enforcement agencies can still conduct checkpoints, but would have to pay for them through means other than these grants.