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Tom LYons: Ruling carries sacrifice, but better DUI policy

But I don’t mean it in a bad way.

The court ruling won by DUI defense lawyer Tom Hudson probably will let a few drunken drivers escape their pending charges, and I won’t make light of that. And the ruling destroyed at least one DUI case — the one against the woman Hudson was defending — and it will force the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office to tweak its DUI roadblock plans that were declared unconstitutional.

But the ruling also helps make sure well-intentioned police tactics respect constitutional rights. That’s a good thing.

In considering the ruling by Circuit Court Judge David Denkin, keep in mind that courts have long held that DUI roadblocks — which detain hundreds of innocent drivers in hopes of catching a few who are impaired — are barely constitutional in the first place.

To detain people without cause that way, police have to use a carefully crafted written plan, and follow it. That, in theory, curbs police tending to self-tweak their “random” stops to let friends and better-connected people slide without the scrutiny others face.

But Judge Denkin decided the Sarasota County Sheriff’s roadblock plan has a flaw: When physical roadside tests showed no evidence of impairment in a driver who admitted to having a drink, the drivers were required to take a non-required breath test, or else leave their cars behind.

So what, you say? The test results could not be used as evidence in court. The only intent was to prevent a driver who was not obviously impaired from causing an accident after leaving a roadblock.

Well, when police tell drivers with no signs of impairment that they must leave their cars behind if they refuse a non-required test, you can see the reality as well as the judge did.

It means that test is actually being unlawfully required, because it is an offer many people can’t refuse.

The flaw is easily fixed. Sheriff’s legal adviser Kurt Hoffman says roadblock plans will soon say when no sign of impairment is noted, drivers will be free to go without further ado.

So the court ruling will create a more fair police procedure.

But yes, all arrested at a roadblock under the old plan — even raving drunks — will likely now be deemed to have been stopped at an illegal roadblock.

The evidence will be tossed. That’s unfortunate.

And I’ll admit I was hoping for one potentially better result: Imagine no DUI checkpoint roadblocks at all.

Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube went with that option starting 20 months ago, in favor of other enforcement methods just as effective, such as the so-called “wolf packs.” Those have a team of DUI enforcers out looking for signs of impaired driving.

Sometimes they stake out watering holes to see who is staggering from bars to cars.

Legal issues first prompted Steube’s look at Manatee’s roadblock arrest statistics, but he says it was the statistics that convinced him he could do better without roadblocks.

Now, his DUI enforcement isn’t causing random traffic jams and inconveniencing far more sober drivers than drunken ones.

“I think we’re making more arrests,” Steube said.

And maybe better ones. Because it is usually bad driving that grabs a wolf pack deputy’s attention, those arrested are more likely to be flagrantly impaired, not borderline cases.

It is hard to see a down side to the change of tactics, unless you just like being stopped randomly by police without cause.

Tom Lyons can be contacted at tom.lyons@heraldtribune.com or (941) 361-4964.

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