Oregon’s battle on sobriety checkpoints

Motorists are stopped at a sobriety checkpoint in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2013 (file)
Motorists are stopped at a sobriety checkpoint in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2013 (file)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Two years ago, Kristi Finney-Dunn lived through her nightmare.

“I was notified at 5 a.m. by a chaplain at the doorstep, just like you see on TV,” she said.

Her son, Dustin Finney, was riding his bike when he was hit and killed by a drunk driver in Portland. He was 28.

“I don’t cry as much as I used to, but I cry unexpectedly,” she said. “The last things we said to each other were I love you, and…” Her voice trailed off, and she was unable to finish her thought.

But she’s turning heartbreak into hard work in a mission to stop drunk driving. But she was surprised to learn Oregon is one of only 12 states that does not allow sobriety checkpoints. The checkpoints also are illegal in Washington state.

“It was a surprise to me, yes,” she said. “I’d prefer that people be put out for a few minutes than go through the devastation so many families like mine go through the rest of their lives.”

State Sen. Rod Monroe wants to get Oregon on board.

“I always believe I can make a difference. That’s why I’m here,” the Portland Democrat said. “We don’t want to lock people up. We want people to stop drinking and driving and killing people.”

In November, Monroe vowed he would again propose the legislation as he has in each of the last three sessions. But his bill has never reached a vote.

When asked why it’s never gotten a legislative vote, Monroe said, “One guy.”

That guy is State Sen. Floyd Prozanski, the chair of the Judiciary Committee.

“The reality of what we’re looking at is how do we interface and keep people from driving under the influence of intoxicants?” Prozanski told KOIN 6 News. “We have enhanced enforcement patrols. Some people call them saturation patrols. They seem to be much better at dealing with the issues that we have.”

He said the tools law enforcement has now are more successful than stopping thousands of innocent people. And because allowing checkpoints would require a change to the Oregon Constitution, he has the support of the ACLU.

Becky Strauss, the ACLU’s legislative director, said, “If the voters approved the change that’s being proposed that would be the first time since statehood that our constitution has been amended to erode these fundamental rights against government intrusion.”

In order to change the law, the legislatures would have to allow a vote of the people to approve a change to the search-and-seizure portion of the Oregon constitution.

Prozanski dismisses the thought that voters should decide.

“I guess what I would say is there is a study that came out in 2003 called the Greene study. That actually shows that these enhanced patrols, saturation patrols have not only been as effective but more effective,” he said.

The statistics show “effective” depends on its definition.

Police are arresting fewer people for DUII — down more than 4,000 from 2008 to 2012. Deaths from DUII are also down, from 171 to 123 in the same time frame.

In Ohio, for example, they had fewer alcohol-related deaths-per-person in 2012 than in Oregon, but barely.

A study led by scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last year said publicized sobriety checkpoints do reduce drunk driving.

“A lot of people think we just do it for enforcement aspect of it,” said Lt. Stephanie Norman of the Ohio Highway Patrol, “but we also do it for the educational portion of it.”

The Oregon chapter of MADD wants legislators to make the change. Their research shows highly visible sobriety checkpoints would decrease alcohol-related fatalities by 8%.

“Once you’re a victim you can’t go back. It’s done, and it will rip your heart out,” said MADD’s Kathy Stromvig.

This battle being waged by lawmakers and lobbyists is one where results will reach throughout the state.

For Kristi Finney-Dunn, though, her goal seems simple.

“Hopefully save other mothers and fathers and siblings from going through the pain, the indescribable pain that I go through sometimes.”

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