State police conducting sobriety checkpoints, upping patrols this month


New Mexico State Police this month is increasing patrols and operating sobriety checkpoints in a broad and controversial law enforcement strategy that has been criticized and even outlawed in some states.

Law-abiding drivers in Taos may be stopped at checkpoints and questioned by officers, who will be checking for registration, insurance and driver's licenses, as well as impairment caused by drugs or alcohol, according to a state police press release.

Drivers who fail to cooperate with officers may be subject to arrest.

The agency defends the strategy as necessary in order to combat drunk driving, which caused 146 of 380 car accident deaths in 2017, according to the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

Since 1981, New Mexico has ranked in the top three states in terms of alcohol-related deaths, due to liver disease, alcohol poisoning and motor vehicle accidents where a driver was impaired, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.

While the overall rate of alcohol-related deaths in the state has increased since that time, deaths due to drunk driving have significantly decreased, the department's data also shows.

In 1997, for example, 1.49 New Mexico residents per 100,000 died in drunk driving crashes, compared to .38 per 100,000 in 2016, according to the state department.

Still, New Mexico's rate of alcohol-related deaths, which includes alcohol-related car accidents, continues to exceed national averages.

State police "saturation patrols" and sobriety checkpoints are held periodically throughout the year to drive that rate down. However, due to the random and arguable no-cause-nature of sobriety checkpoints, some states have found them to be unlawful.

In practice, sobriety checkpoints involve officers pulling over drivers at random and questioning them in their vehicles. If officers suspect a driver is intoxicated, they may make the person take field sobriety tests. If a driver fails, they can be arrested.

New Mexico state legislator Monica Youngblood, for example, was arrested and charged with aggravated DWI May 20 after she was stopped at a sobriety checkpoint in Albuquerque and refused to submit to a blood test, according to reporting from The Santa Fe New Mexican.

Some states have argued that such arrests violate basic rights.

In 1990, a group of Michigan residents sued their state for operating sobriety checkpoints, arguing they violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which analyzed one night in Saginaw County, Michigan, where two drunk driving arrests were made and 124 other innocent drivers had been stopped and questioned.

The justices ruled the state had a "substantial government interest" to combat drunk driving, and that any infringement on Fourth Amendment rights was negligible by comparison.

Sobriety checkpoints were outlawed in Oregon in 1987 in a similar case that went as far as the state Supreme Court. Saturation patrols, on the other hand, were found to be in line with the state's constitution.

Nine other states have also outlawed DUI checkpoints, either through state law or state constitution.

As drunk driving related deaths remain a leading cause of death across the country, however, such preventive measures remain a regular practice in many states.