Sometimes you gotta wonder. I mean, really. You gotta wonder.
The village of Deforest, Wisconsin recently conducted a "fake OWI checkpoint". It has since announced plans to conduct another "fake OWI checkpoint" this weekend.
Again, more slowly. Deforest Police announced plans to conduct a fake...OWI checkpoint.
"So," the first question you ask, "what's an OWI checkpoint?"
Roughly, OWI checkpoints are randomly established zones where police stop cars that pass through a certain point in order to check for intoxicated drivers. Wisconsin law bans the use of OWI checkpoints. So, since Deforest can't legally perform a real OWI checkpoint, they're using a fake one.
I honestly have no idea. Apparently it's some type of Halloween trick or treat. Police officers get dressed up to scare you, but then let you go after pretending to put you under arrest. According to the AP and published in the Journal-Sentinel online, the first time they conducted the fake OWI checkpoint, police dressed in bright reflective vests and set up cones and electronic
road signs warning of an "OWI task force ahead." Rather than pull over drunk drivers, it appears they pulled people over for anything but drunk driving. This included stops for any minor infractions, including broken license plate lights. They issued 10 citations, gave 30 warnings, and made one arrest. None of the news pieces I saw indicated that any OWI investigations took place.
As I spend a great deal of time in criminal courts (as an attorney, not a defendant), I know that police can arrest any individual for any minor traffic infraction, and effectively gain the right to search an entire automobile and its contents. They don't need a checkpoint to do it. Do they really need, what is in effect, a "broken license plate lights" checkpoint? Is there any tangible benefit to having a fake OWI checkpoint?
"So," you ask, "why even have a fake OWI checkpoint?" It's clearly not law enforcement. But in all fairness, the most obvious reason is deterrence. And that's a noble, righteous goal for governments and police departments to achieve. The shock and surprise of maybe, possibly, being picked off for OWI will prevent people from drinking while driving. Make no mistake--that's a good thing. So long as people think they might be headed for an arrest, they might think twice before turning on the ignition.
However, that very important rationale leaves at least three glaring questions: 1) If you were going to have a fake OWI checkpoint, why would you tell everyone about it in advance? 2) News outlets, particularly TV news, pride themselves on selling gratuitous hype as community service. Why have they devoted broadcast time to exposing a strategic police procedure shortly before it takes place and even has a chance to prove effective? 3) Honestly, what would the Deforest Police Department do if they actually encountered a real drunk driver at their fake checkpoint? If such checkpoints are currently illegal, any OWI arrest would be thrown out.*
In any event, I really think we need to give some leeway to the DPD. After all the DPD is the same police organization that brought Deforesters (Deforesters? Really?) ... SPEEDWATCH! The program where YOU! catch the speeders! That's right, YOU! get a real live radar gun! I wish I could make this up, but it really exists. See http://deforestpd.com/index_files/Page563.htm. Based on YOUR! report, the DPD will issue a formal written warning to the auto's registered owner. They don't care who's really driving the car, just who owns it. Don't worry, though. The program has no potential for misuse. If you sign up for the program you make an appointment ot get the gun. And you get a "quick training lesson", too!
In all seriousness, drunken driving is a serious problem that just isn't going away. It's also a complex debate. Do I want drunk drivers off the street? Of course I do. Is legalizing checkpoints the answer? I don't know. I support the idea of criminalizing first OWI, in theory. The State of Illinois allows for diversion of an OWI conviction for a first arrest upon the completion of treatment. Once completed, the conviction is vacated. One of the biggest problems I see with people arrested on the second OWI is that they never took rehabilitation seriously after the first arrest. A serious difficulty with criminalization of the first offense, however, is that it redirects fines, and could rob cash-strapped municipalities of much needed income.
Most importantly, we need to have a change in attitude about drinking in Wisconsin. That is going to be the toughest obstacle to overcome. And it requires more than mere enforcement. It requires proactive effort. We should have a discussion about the problem, but it needs to be a real discussion. Not a fake one.
*Note that I have declined to specifically address the blatantly obvious question of whether police conducting a "fake OWI checkpoint", who can't legitimately stop automobiles to randomly check for drunk drivers. could have any authority whatseover to issue any citations or perform any arrests for any violation other than drunk driving.