California Highway Patrol officers set-up a sobriety/driver license checkpoint 9 p.m. - 3 a.m. in Coarsegold last Friday in an attempt to get people driving under the influence of drugs and or alcohol off the road. The checkpoint, set-up in the the north bound lane of Highway 41 at Pony Express Lane, resulted in zero DUI arrests, although eight cars were pulled off the highway because the drivers did not have valid driver's license.
The operation, planned for the Friday of Labor Day weekend with drivers travelling to Yosemite and Bass Lake, was under the direction of CHP Sgt. Ed Greene, and six officers.
Officers stopped 459 vehicles out of the estimated 700 that passed through the six hour checkpoint. Officers told each driver they were looking for people driving under the influence and for those driving without a valid driver's license. The driver's ability to speak without slurring their words was established quickly with a couple routine questions: Where are you going and where are you coming from? Each driver stopped was asked to show their driver's license.
Although some drivers complain about the short delay, Greene said many people thank the officers for their efforts to get impaired drivers off the Highway. Greene, who will retire from the CHP at the end of the year, has been involved in more than 30 checkpoint operations during his career in Monterey, Southern California, Mariposa and Oakhurst.
"We are making random stops while keeping the traffic moving the best we can," Greene said. "When it is busy, we stop every fifth vehicle ... when the traffic slows down we check everyone."
The officers, trained in the detection of alcohol or drug impaired drivers, were armed with hand-held breath testing devices. Four drivers were pulled off the highway for field sobriety tests, including blowing into a Preliminary Alcohol Screening Device to help determine if the driver was intoxicated. All four were released after it was determined they were not driving under the influence of alcohol according to Greene. The highest alcohol level was .05. In California, a .08 level is considered to be impaired.
"It's good we didn't make a DUI arrest and we got eight vehicles off the highway that were being driven by people without a valid driver's license," Greene said. "Check points also provide education to drivers and community relations for the CHP."
Eight drivers were cited for driving without a license or driving while their license was suspended for a previous DUI, a failure to appear in court or negligent driving. In those cases, if the driver's passenger was licensed, they were allowed to drive the vehicle from the check-point. Previous law allowed for the vehicle to be impounded immediately when the driver was found to be unlicensed. A new law that went into affect Jan. 1, gives drivers without a licensed passenger, the opportunity to call a friend or relative to come get the car before the check-point shut downs.
That was the case for a young man on his way to stock shelves at an Oakhurst grocery store. The driver, from Mexico, was not a U.S. citizen and did not have a license. After a phone call, two relatives arrived, one driving him to work and the other driving his car home.
Green feels the government should figure out a way to license undocumented people in California.
"At least then they would receive driver's and behind-the-wheel training and learn all the laws of the highway," Greene said.
Four drivers had their cars impounded for 30 days for driving on a suspended license.
Towards the end of the check point, a Fresno resident who was a passenger in a vehicle, was taken into custody when officers discovered he had a felony warrant for narcotic violations out of Fresno County. The suspect was transported by a Madera County Sheriff's Deputy to the county line where he was released to a Fresno County Sheriff Deputy. The vehicle the suspect was in was towed to an impound yard because the driver had a suspended license.
"Our goal is to ensure the safety of motorists by occasionally targeting specific areas with checkpoints designed to augment patrol operations," Greene said. "Checkpoints are an effective way to achieve our goal and send a clear message that if a person decides to drive while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, there is a good chance they will be caught."
Greene voiced frustration over repeat DUI offenders and the slow judicial process in the county.
"What we see is the habitual drunk drivers who continue to drive, even with a suspended license," Greene said. "We keep seeing the same people over and over around here. We have arrested people two or three times over a year's period, that have not been to court to be tried and convicted for the first offense. I don't know if the district attorney's office is backlogged or there are not enough deputy district attorneys, but we keep making arrests and those same people are still driving."
Greene said if a driver has three previous DUI convictions, the fourth is a felony punishable by 10 years in prison.
In March, Madera County District Attorney Michael Keitz, said DUI cases have always been a high priority for his office, and that not all cases that come to his office meet the Constitutional requirement that a case must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
In Madera County, for the second consecutive year, there were no roadway fatalities over the Labor Day weekend. There were 11 DUI arrests over weekend, slightly down from last year's 15.