Friday, October 31, 2014
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Fargo police say sobriety checkpoints are effective
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Police stop every car that passes through the sobriety checkpoint. Drivers that show signs of being impaired are tested. Hundreds of drivers can be checked in a night. (MPR photo/Dan Gunderson)
The National organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving says Minnesota should use sobriety checkpoints. MADD says the checkpoints are the best way to reduce deaths from drunk driving. Sobriety checkpoints are prohibited in 10 states, including Minnesota. North Dakota allows checkpoints, and Fargo police have started using them.

Fargo, N.D. — The checkpoints are run with military precision. On a recent Friday night, around 11:30 p.m., 20 uniformed police officers gather in a parking lot next to a busy street. They quickly set up rows of orange traffic cones, and a large sign that says "sobriety checkpoint."

For the next hour and a half, every car on this busy street is stopped. Police officers quickly assess each driver. If they detect no sign of alcohol, the driver is sent on his way.

This is the fourth sobriety checkpoint conducted since last fall. In the first three checkpoints, 29 drivers were arrested. Lt. Paul Laney, who heads the operation for the Fargo Police Department, says his goal is zero arrests.

"I think a lot of times people say, 'Well, the cops are just out there to arrest everybody.' In this case, we will be thrilled when we can be out here for three hours, and everybody that comes through is sober or has a designated driver," says Laney.

Other cities have reduced alcohol-related crashes by 15 to 20 percent, according to Lt. Laney. He is convinced the high-profile checkpoints are making a difference in Fargo. One sign of that trend is that officers are seeing more designated drivers pass through the checkpoints than when they started.

"We've had cars come loaded -- there'd be four or five people in the car, heavily intoxicated, and one guy sober as can be driving the vehicle. That's what we love to see," says Lt. Laney. "We'll really give them an 'atta boy' or an 'atta girl' if they're doing that, because that's what we want to see. We know people are getting home safely then."

Traffic moves through the sobriety checkpoint relatively quickly. Officer Jessica Burgum stops a middle-aged man in a pickup truck. He says he's on his way home from work.

We will be thrilled when we can be out here for three hours, and everybody that comes through is sober or has a designated driver.
- Lt. Paul Laney

"I'm going to give you a pamphlet that tells what checkpoints are about, and she's going to give you a coupon for a sandwich at McDonalds for wearing your seatbelt," Officer Burgum tells the man. "Thank you for your patience, have a safe night."

The driver was stopped at the checkpoint for about 30 seconds.

Officer Burgum says she can quickly decide if a driver is impaired.

"I can smell the alcohol right away, usually. The smell of alcohol, bloodshot eyes -- and sometimes they'll tell you," says Burgum.

In the next hour or so, more than a dozen drivers are pulled into the parking lot on suspicion of drunk driving. Most pass sobriety tests and are sent on their way.

Before the night is over, three people are arrested for drunk driving. Another half dozen are arrested for offenses ranging from drug possession to having a loaded gun in the car.

Fargo Police Lt. Paul Laney says the checkpoints are more effective than saturation patrols commonly used in Minnesota to deter drunk drivers. Fargo police also use saturation patrols, but they result in fewer arrests than sobriety checkpoints.

"In a saturation patrol, let's say you put out three cars. Those three officers are going to make traffic stops one at a time, and maybe stop five or six cars in an hour. In three hours, maybe they stop seven or eight. Well, in a three-hour period here, we've passed through as high as 642 cars," says Lt. Laney.

The checkpoint runs smoothly until shortly after midnight, when a speeding car approaches and races past the checkpoint. Officers shout in alarm, and a squad car races after the driver.

Lt. Laney guesses the car was going 60 miles per hour.

"I have visions of that car scattered all over the checkpoint. I need a little oxygen after that one. I thought were going to lose some people on that one," says Laney.

For the officers working the checkpoint, deciding who to arrest is sometimes a judgment call. A young woman who smells of alcohol is questioned and tested.

The woman says she had two tall beers at a local restaurant over several hours. She fails the breathalyzer test. Her blood alcohol is .10, just over the .08 limit in North Dakota.

Officers then ask the woman to perform tests like walking a straight line, standing on one foot and reciting part of the alphabet. She passes all of the field tests. After talking with a supervisor, the officer decides not to arrest the woman.

He tells her to call a cab, and leave her car in the parking lot.

Around 1:00 a.m., police quickly load the orange cones and sobriety checkpoint sign in a trailer -- and head to a new location. It seems employees at Fargo bars are telling patrons the location of the checkpoints, so police now move the site at least once a night.

They'll wrap this checkpoint up at about 2:30 a.m. By spring, police hope to be running smaller checkpoints more often. They want drivers in Fargo to know late-night sobriety checkpoints will become a fact of life.

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