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Sobriety Checkpoints and Police Discrimination


Amid nationwide concerns about policing in minority neighborhoods, comes a report in the Chicago Tribune alleging discrimination in the manner in which sobriety checkpoints are operated. The investigation by the Tribune found that 84% of roadside checks were scheduled in areas populated mostly by minorities. This was despite the fact that the areas with the most recorded DUI-related crashes were mostly white, middle classed areas.

Chicago’s Jefferson Park police district is a predominantly white and middle classed residential area. It also happens to have the highest rate of DUI-related accidents and fatalities. However, the police have not set up a sobriety checkpoint there in more that five years. Seven miles south, in the Austin district, a tough neighborhood that is predominantly black, the police have set up ten sobriety checkpoints in the same period. This, despite the fact that there were four times fewer DUI-related crashes in this area than Jefferson Park.

Of Chicago’s 22 police districts, nine are majority black, five white, four Latino and four have no racial majority. According to the report in the Tribune, from February 2010 to June 2014, the most recent period with complete data available, Chicago police scheduled 152 sobriety checkpoints. Of those, 127 were in black or Latino police districts. Only six were in majority white districts. That’s less than 4 percent of checkpoints set up over the period, even though 25 per cent of the city’s alcohol related accidents occurred in white areas.

Federal guidelines suggest that the police should use objective criteria, including the incidence of DUI-related accidents in an area before deciding on the location for a checkpoint.

In California, the leading case of Ingersoll v. Palmer (1987) 43 Cal.3d 1321 requires that the police carefully consider the location for a checkpoint using objective criteria and ideally set up check points in areas where there is a high recorded incidence of DUI accidents.

The results support critics who have long argued that sobriety checkpoints are ineffective. The Tribune found that of the nearly 270,000 citations issued through checkpoints from 2008 to 2013, 93% were for minor traffic infractions, not DUI. This raises the question of whether DUI checkpoints are being used primarily to rack up violations and revenue.

Supporters of checkpoints point out that they are not just used as a means to increase DUI arrests, but to act as a deterrent to drunk drivers.