March 21, 2006

Drunk Driving Lessons

For a long time, I thought that the next big breakthrough in contrarian journalism would come in the form of an article defending drunk driving. So at long last, here it is. Okay, not really, but Mark Schone does manage to point out that a lot of drunk-driving laws manage to make some serious infringements on our various constitutional rights. And because "everyone" opposes drunk driving, the Supreme Court has happily gone along:
The best-known Supreme Court ruling on a drunken driving measure came about when a motorist named Rick Sitz filed suit to stop the Michigan state police from using ''sobriety checkpoints." But in Michigan v. Sitz (1990) and again in Indianapolis v. Edmond a year later, the Supreme Court ruled that anti-alcohol roadblocks were justified, because preventing impaired motorists from causing accidents is part of a small category of public-safety ''special needs" exceptions to the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable search and seizure.

Once stopped, a motorist can then be compelled to provide evidence against himself. The government has been allowed to coerce the timely production of blood evidence in a DUI case-by warrant and by physical force-since Schmerber v. California (1966). But if the arresting officer doesn't want to wrestle a recalcitrant suspect to the ground, in most states the prosecutor can simply use the defendant's refusal to take the test as evidence at trial. In South Dakota v. Neville (2000), the court ruled that introducing the refusal as evidence does not violate the Fifth Amendment, because it is not oral testimony and thus not self-incriminating.

The accused, meanwhile, has only a limited right to examine the evidence against him. Though it's possible to preserve breathalyzer evidence, California v. Trombetta (1984) endorsed the routine police practice of disposing of it immediately. The defendant also has no Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, provided the criminal penalties do not exceed six months in jail, a standard retrieved from British common law in Blanton v. North Las Vegas (1989).
It's a pretty interesting piece, and if I knew anything about the Fourth, Fifth, or Sixth Amendments, maybe I could have some really insightful things to say. (One law professor quoted in the piece, for instance, thinks that there's more of an automobile exception to, say, the Fourth Amendment than anything like a "DUI exception"—interesting, that.) But no. (Also noteworthy: The Justice Department cited those warrantless "sobriety checkpoints" as a precedent for the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program.)

What I can offer is a little bit of drunk driving-related trivia, though. Way back in 1988, drunk driving was a bit of a problem, as it is now. But back then, no one had ever really heard of the concept of a "designated driver." Basically, it didn't exist. A professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, Jay Winsten, came up with the idea and pitched it, with the help of an NBC executive, to over 200 writers and producers at various networks, asking them to include a line or two about it in their shows whenever they dealt with drinking issues.

And it worked! TV shows such as "Cheers" and the "Cosby Show" started talking about "designated drivers" and people took notice. In 1989, Gallup found that 67 percent of all adults had heard about the concept, and in 1991, the Roper Organization found that 37 percent of adults had passed up drinking to act as a designated driver—up from 29 percent two years earlier. Between 1988 and 1992, drunk-driving fatalities declined from 23,626 to 17,858 a year. Obviously a lot of things could explain that decline, but it's not too outlandish to imagine that the "designated driver" campaign had quite the impact. So there. Behold the power of TV sitcoms. And sure, it wasn't just TV sitcoms—there were other government and community groups pushing the concept—but TV surely helped.
-- Brad Plumer 4:34 PM || ||