By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Holiday shopping — and holiday traffic checkpoints — are sure signs it’s Christmas. Randomly stopping motorists to look for drunk drivers has been common practice in many states for years now, but enforcement efforts tend to step up around the Christmas/New Year’s holidays.
What should you do if you happen to roll up on one of these checkpoints?
1) Be sober.
The legal threshold defining Driving Under the Influence (DUI) can be as little as .06 BAC (Blood Alcohol Content), a level that can be reached after having consumed just two cocktails at the office Christmas party. This is well below the typical .08 BAC threshold defining Driving While Intoxicated (DWI), but in many states you can be arrested for DUI at the lower .06 threshold — and the potential punishment upon conviction for DUI is often nearly identical to the punishment imposed for DWI.
Either way, the consequences that attend a DUI or DWI conviction are not worth the risk of driving with any significant amount of booze in your system. If you plan to drive, the best policy is to avoid drinking any alcohol before you do.
2) Be polite.
Many people understandably chafe at having to submit to what amounts to a random (and probable cause-less) roadside interrogation and interruption of their travel. They’re right to be annoyed, but it’s common sense not to show it. Don’t raise your voice or become argumentative. These days, people have been Tazed merely for being “uncooperative.” Try to smile and behave normally.
The object is to get it over with and drive on without further problems.
3) Be prepared.
You should always carry your driver’s license with you and have the vehicle’s registration and insurance card (both current) in the car someplace. These roadside checkpoints are not just for catching drunk drivers; they’re also a dragnet for any possible source of “revenue” for the local/state government that can be raised via a ticket for other charges you may be open to — such as failing to have a valid registration or an out-of-date state inspection sticker. Same goes for stuff like burned out headlights, cracked windshields and so on. Anything that could be cause for a ticket you should deal with before you fall into the Venus Flytrap of a holiday checkpoint. Otherwise it’s a good bet your Christmas present will be a piece of “payin’ paper.”
Related: If you have a concealed weapons permit, it’s smart to advise the cop you have one as soon as possible, especially if you are carrying a handgun (loaded or not) with you. Do so in a calm voice and while keeping both hands in plain view. If the cop asks whether you are armed, tell him yes or no. If he asks where the weapon is, tell him it is on your hip (or wherever) but do not reach for it and if he asks to see it, tell him you prefer that he remove it from your person in that case.
We live in jumpy times and it’s unwise to put yourself in the position of reaching for a loaded handgun — permit or no permit and no matter how innocent your intentions. Tell the cop you’d like to exit the vehicle and have him take the weapon off your person if he wishes to inspect it. Never allow your hands to go anywhere near your gun.
4) Be aware of your rights.
While the law says you have to stop at the checkpoint and submit to being questioned, you don’t have to answer any question the cop asks, especially if it’s a leading question designed to get you to make a potentially incriminating statement. The laws requires you identify yourself, provide registration and proof of insurance — and nothing more. You are not required to tell the cop where you’re headed — or why you’re “out so late.” If you have been drinking, even if it’s just a single glass of wine, you are not required to incriminate yourself by telling him how much, or when, or what (although if you haven’t touched a drop that night, it’s common sense to tell him “no” when he asks whether you’ve been drinking, even though you’re not legally required to answer that question, either).
As a practical/legal matter, if the cop begins to question you seriously, any good lawyer would advise you to politely decline to answer and to advise the cop that if you are to be arrested or detained further that you will only answer questions after having spoken with an attorney. Never forget: Cops are not your friend. They are looking for people to ticket and arrest and will do so whenever possible and will use any statement you make against you as evidence later on.
Related: Never give consent to search your vehicle, either. If they ask, tell them not unless they have a warrant. It’s not just the principle of the thing. Innocent people have been ensnared after having given consent to have their vehicles searched — not knowing that (for example) a previous owner smoked pot in the car and there are still some seeds buried in the carpet, which were subsequently sniffed out by a narcotics dog and as a result, found themselves charged with dope possession and their vehicle seized under asset forfeiture laws.
It’s not paranoid to insist on your rights. It’s prudent.