Have Advocates Against Drunk Driving Gone Too Far?

March 6th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

When Florida lawyer Warren Redlich was tired of defending wrongful arrests at DUI checkpoints, he had an idea that, he hoped, would help people legally navigate random drunk driving stops without speaking a word to police.

Recently, Redlich’s idea, “Fair DUI Flyers,” seem to have hit a nerve, receiving coverage from numerous national news outlets. The posters, emblazoned with citizens’ sacred rights (“I remain silent, no searches,” and “I want my lawyer”) allow drivers to hold up to the window or dangle in a plastic baggie the pertinent information that will get them on their way––a loophole of sorts.

The flyers have been tailored to meet laws in over 12 states and are available in printable links.

Videos of drivers on YouTube using the flyers have been viewed thousands of times, and a tutorial video has been viewed more than 2.5 million times this year. 

But Redlich’s efforts have garnered pointed criticism and an equally strong pushback from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which categorically oppose loopholes that could allow an impaired driver to slip by––a noble stance without question. But could the pushback against Relich’s efforts illustrate a larger, quieter debate at the touchy intersection of drunk driving and civil liberties?

Back in 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Rick Sitz, a Michigan resident who filed a suit against his state police department’s use of random checkpoints to catch drunk drivers. Such checkpoints, he argued, were a violation of drivers’ privacy and fourth amendment rights (which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures without warrant or probable cause). Though lower courts sided with Sitz, the Supreme Court came down in a 6-3 decision, ultimately ruling that checkpoints were constitutionally sound. “[N]o one can seriously dispute the magnitude of the drunken driving problem or the States’ interest in eradicating it,” justices noted. “[T]he weight bearing on the other scale—the measure of the intrusion on motorists stopped briefly at sobriety checkpoints—is slight.”

Since that SCOTUS decision, police in 38 states employ checkpoints, but their presence is still contested, with some seeing them as pushing the envelope on reasonable suspicion. Earlier this month in Oregon, where sobriety checkpoints have been constitutionally banned since 1987, lawmakers sought to reintroduce them as a check against the imbalance drunk drivers invariably create.

But despite their obvious appeal as a public safety measure, observers say checkpoints inherently pose problems for anyone concerned with constitutional rights. “If you’re going to spend taxpayer money to try to prevent drunk driving, spend it in enforcing the law through a DUI saturation patrol, not on a roadblock. This is a dragnet procedure that catches innocent fish in its wide and deep net,” Oregon attorney John Henry Hingson told a local NBC affiliate in response to the proposal. “DUI roadblocks are ineffective,” he said. (In fact, research indicates that DUI checkpoints are indeed effective in reducing alcohol-related crashes.)

MADD has famously stood behind efforts to stymie drunk driving, often drawing criticism for stepping on the toes of civil liberties with their unequivocal stance. Not surprisingly, DUI checkpoints are no exception.

“Driving is a privilege, not a right. Checkpoints are legal and deemed so by the U.S. Supreme Court. Refusing to speak to law enforcement in a situation like this could be viewed as reasonable suspicion for you to be detained and put through a standardized field sobriety test,” MADD national president Colleen Sheehey-Church told ATTN: in a statement.

For the last couple of months, MADD chapters across the country have put significant weight behind measures strengthening laws that employ the use of breathalyzers wired to a car’s ignition system, the basic idea being that if the driver’s been drinking, the car won’t start, no ifs, ands, or buts. In some cases, where MADD has propped up legislation requiring judges to mandate these systems for convicted drunken drivers, ACLU chapters have spoken out in opposition, protecting the jurisdiction of the courts.

The meeting point of staunch proponents of civil liberties and groups like MADD that protect against public health with an indiscriminate fist is a complex one, with either side representing obvious, unassailable belief systems. And what’s more, the answer doesn’t seem to be getting any clearer.

“There are genuinely drunk drivers that need to be taken off the road,” Redlich told CBS. “[B]ut unfortunately the way the system works, a lot of innocent people get caught up in it and the idea of [the flyers] is to help people protect themselves by not rolling down their window and asserting their rights.”