Most states receive federal funding for roadblocks and other highway safety programs, administered through the Governors Highway Safety Association. Funding for the Alcohol-Impaired Driving Countermeasure Incentive Grant, which requires states to use half the grant for sobriety checkpoints or saturation patrols, increased from $40 million in 2005 to $139 million in 2009. Over the last 10 years, Georgia has received $24.6 million in funding from that grant, while Tennessee has received $16.3 million.
Last year, the Georgia State Patrol held 9,800 roadblocks across the state, an average of 26 a day, with about 37,000 man-hours invested in the checkpoints.
In comparison, the Tennessee Highway Patrol held 563 roadblocks, an average of fewer than two a day. The Alabama Highway Patrol more than tripled in the last five years the number of roadblocks it holds, and it fell between Tennessee and Georgia with 2,487 roadblocks in 2010.
In addition to roadblocks held by state police, local law enforcement agencies in Georgia reported holding 9,423 roadblocks to the Governor's Office of Highway Safety under a voluntary reporting system. About two-thirds of local agencies reported their numbers.
Altogether, Georgia law enforcement agencies reported holding more than 80,000 roadblocks over the last four years.
Some people call Georgia's roadblock numbers shocking, a violation of individual rights that cannot be justified by the need to check for driving violations or drunken drivers.
Law enforcement officials say the roadblocks are part of the state's successful highway safety program. The proof can be shown by the decrease in traffic fatalities, dropping from 1,729 fatalities in 2005 to 1,284 in 2009, they say.
"What we've found is that checkpoints are an effective tool to raise public awareness, to deter impaired drivers," said Spencer Moore, deputy director for the Georgia Governor's Office of Highway Safety. "With these checkpoints, we believe the numbers will continue to go in the right direction. Because, for our office, one fatality is one too many."
But Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, which was founded to represent the rights of motorists, said the numbers are alarming and that police roadblocks do not lessen fatalities. Research has shown that most arrests for driving under the influence are made by patrolling officers, not those in roadblocks, he said.
"Even from a common-sense standpoint, it is a very high number," said Biller, whose organization contends that most roadblocks violate the Constitution's Fourth Amendment governing unlawful search and seizure. "With that many roadblocks, law enforcement is casting a very wide net. They are generating a reason to find probable cause."
Proponents of roadblocks cite the drop in traffic fatalities over the last decade as justification for them. But statistics do not show a clear correlation between more roadblocks and lower fatality rates.
It is true that Tennessee has a slightly higher crash-fatality rate than Georgia, but only slightly. In 2009, the most recent numbers available, Tennessee had a little more than 15 vehicular accident deaths per 100,000 residents, while Georgia had about 13. Both states had significant drops in traffic fatalities over the past five years, although both still rank higher than the national average.
In Georgia, about 26 percent of those deaths in 2009 were linked to impaired driving, while about 31 percent of Tennessee traffic fatalities involved crashes linked to alcohol impairment.
Alabama, whose state roadblock numbers fall between those of Georgia and Tennessee, had a higher number of fatalities overall and of DUI related-fatalities than either neighboring state. In 2009, the state had 18 crash fatalities per 100,000 residents, with 33 percent of those linked to impaired driving.
However, states such as Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Texas, which are among a dozen that prohibit roadblocks under a state constitution or by some other means, had lower fatality rates than all three states.
Georgia and Tennessee have slightly different state Supreme Court rulings regulating how roadblocks are held, with Tennessee having more stringent requirements. That difference is likely the main reason the states have such disparate numbers, according to Richard Holt, law enforcement administrator with the Tennessee Governor's Highway Safety Office.
Tennessee requires public notice be given in advance of when and where a roadblock will be held. The notice must be printed in the local newspaper and announced on local radio stations. Georgia does not require advance notice, but the roadblock must be approved by a supervisor in the agency involved.
"It requires a little more planning on our part, and that is probably why we don't have as many," Holt said. "But I also think it is a fair way; it is something that is planned and not just set up ad hoc."
Holt said the requirements may be a double-edged sword. They limit the number of roadblocks, but public notices increase publicity and awareness about sobriety checkpoints. Sometimes officials will announce several roadblocks but end up holding only one because of manpower constraints or other reasons, he said. Nevertheless, the public notice even for roadblocks not held is a deterrent, he said.
Overall, he said he thinks the limitations placed on law officers regarding roadblocks are a good thing and have not lessened their ability to reduce crashes and fatalities.
Instead of roadblocks, Tennessee law enforcement agencies hold saturation patrols, Holt said. In such patrols, officers drive around areas that have a high number of DUI incidents or crashes and pull over drivers who are driving unsafely or illegally.
"In our case, we have found them to be more effective than roadblocks," Holt said.
Capt. David McGill, who heads the Tennessee Highway Patrol in the Chattanooga area, said his agency is not given specific guidelines on how many roadblocks to conduct. Each district captain makes those decisions based on manpower available and data on crash and DUI statistics, he said.
But a roadblock must be approved by department heads in Nashville before it is held, McGill said. The agency also provides the information to local media and the local district attorney, he said.
In addition, all officers participating in the roadblock are read the highway patrol's general order for conducting a roadblock before they begin, McGill said, and, under that general order, at least four officers must conduct the roadblock and it must be held a maximum of two hours. The agency also videotapes roadblocks.
"I would say we provide a good amount of checkpoints here in the Chattanooga district," McGill said. "It is a good public relations tool and a way to interact with our communities."
Lt. Paul Cosper, spokesman for the Georgia State Patrol, and Moore, with the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, also cited statistics to show that, even though Georgia holds vastly more roadblocks, they are effective and a good use of personnel.
"When they hold a checkpoint, officers hand out tickets for a lot of different kinds of violations," Cosper said. "It may range from DUI to having bald tires; all things that pose a danger to safety."
Under Georgia case law, the decision to implement the roadblock must be made by supervisory personnel rather than officers in the field, and all vehicles are stopped as opposed to random vehicle stops. In addition, the delay for motorists is minimal, the roadblock operation is well identified as a police checkpoint and officers must be properly trained.
"These checkpoints are being held all over the state," Moore said. "It is very effective in deterring other types of crime as well; it is very good for overall public safety."
LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT
The Georgia State Patrol is not the only agency conducting many roadblocks a year; even small Georgia law enforcement agencies hold dozens.
Varnell in Whitfield County, with a population of about 1,600 and a police force of seven listed on the town's website, reported holding 40 roadblocks last year. Officers made 32 DUI arrests in 2010, according to numbers reported to the state.
Numbers of roadblocks held vary widely from county to county and from year to year. In general, the number of roadblocks does not seem to increase the number of DUI arrests. All arrest numbers reported are total DUIs, not just those made at roadblocks.
For example, the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office reported 111 roadblocks in 2007, a year in which it charged 194 people with DUI. In 2009, the agency held 29 roadblocks but charged 236 people with DUI.
The Catoosa County Sheriff's Office reported 59 roadblocks in 2010, with 153 DUI arrests. In 2009, it held 86 roadblocks and made 126 DUI arrests.
Tennessee does not track local law enforcement roadblocks, so numbers were not available. Several local law enforcement agencies, including the Chattanooga Police Department, the Bradley County Sheriff's Office and the Cleveland Police Department, said they generally hold roadblocks only in conjunction with the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
Law enforcement officials in Georgia have said their roadblocks are held under federal and state guidelines for traffic safety.
But some Georgia lawyers said having so many roadblocks so frequently raises questions about why the roadblocks are held and whether they may violate U.S. Supreme Court Fourth Amendment rulings.
Atlanta attorney Charles Kuck called the Georgia numbers "shocking." As an immigration lawyer, he sees many illegal immigrants arrested in roadblocks and held for possible deportation, he said.
"It raises questions about the real reason they are holding these roadblocks," he said.
National highway safety and insurance groups agree with Georgia's stance on roadblocks, but other groups say the state risks violating citizens' rights.
"It's about frequency and visibility," said Russ Rader, with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit organization that promotes highway safety. "Research shows sobriety checkpoints are very effective as a deterrent to drinking and driving. The key thing about checkpoints is that they create an atmosphere where people are aware of the dangers."
Judie Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, took her affirmation a step further.
"Ten thousand checkpoints are going to be more effective than the fewer numbers," Stone said. "If you do it only sporadically, people are going to be able to get away with impaired driving. They are not perfect, but the number of traffic fatalities [has] gone way down with increased awareness and checkpoints."
Biller disagreed. His organization supports safe driving and programs to reduce traffic fatalities and DUIs, he said, but the numbers do not show that roadblocks help lower fatality rates.
He cited one study done recently in California that shows only 2.3 percent of DUI arrests in the state were made at roadblocks.
"Police patrols are much more effective as opposed to stopping everyone," he said. "They are inconveniencing a large number of drivers to find that one driver."
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...