January 31, 2012

Walking the Line: With drunk driving, police balance enforcement and citizens’ rights

By Michelle Eigenheer–

A red Buick speeds around a curve, turning onto Eastern Parkway. The driver shows no indication of slowing down or improving his driving. Red and blue lights blink on, pulling the car over. Quickly enough, Sergeant L.H. Adkisson determines that this is a probable DUI and that a sobriety test is in order.

This is a scene not uncommon around University of Louisville. Between Thursday and Saturday night, college students drive home from parties, some so intoxicated that they become a real danger on the road. Approximately 12 people generally get pulled over on campus on any night from Thursday to Saturday. Of these, maybe four are arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Many of these parties and subsequent arrests are happening around The Province, an apartment complex dedicated to U of L students.

“The Province has not been the problem child we thought that it would be,” says Adkisson, a commanding officer with the U of L Department of Public Safety.

However, it still has its issues and both the Department of Public Safety and Louisville Metro Police Department make a point to patrol there regularly. In fact, The Province itself often requests heightened patrol and even employs two LMPD officers, giving them rent-free apartments in return for their presence and activity around the complex.

The heavy policing in the area has some upset though. Some students feel that their rights and privacy are being infringed upon by sobriety tests and traffic stops.

Justin Brown, a student at the Brandeis School of Law, sent an email to The Louisville Cardinal detailing the scrutiny he received when coming home from a night out with friends. Around 1 a.m., Brown came home to be greeted by a police officer who proceeded to question him, explaining that there had been reports of drunk drivers in the area.

“I spent the next 10 to 15 minutes in the cold and rain going through questions and a field sobriety test that lasted until I told the officer to retrieve his breathalyzer so that I could prove I only had the two drinks in a three hour period that I told him about,” Brown told the Cardinal.

“Afterwards, when I went back to my apartment and really thought about the exchange, I felt violated,” Brown wrote. “Sure, on one hand you can say that the officer is just doing his job, but was he really? I don’t believe so. The officer needed at least reasonable suspicion to stop and question me, which he did not have… The officer not only overstepped his bounds to try and fish out a potential arrest, but while he was doing so he wasted valuable time that he could have spent searching out people who were actually breaking the law and posing a risk to the safety of others.”

While it may be true that there are students who are being stopped unfairly, police officers cannot ignore suspicious behavior, such as someone rolling into the parking lot late on a party night. While a sobriety test might take ten minutes or more, the police cannot simply give a Breathalyzer test to someone they suspect is driving under the influence of alcohol.

“To give a Breathalyzer, we have to establish reasonable suspicion,” explained Adkisson. “That’s what the field sobriety test does.”

Still, a Breathalyzer test is not always the last word on a DUI charge. The “legal limit” in Kentucky is a .08 blood-alcohol level, but “a person can blow between a .05 and a .07 and still be charged with a DUI, based on their behavior,” said Adkisson.

If an officer witnesses a driver who is obviously impaired, such as with their speech, vision and coordination, that person may still be deemed a danger even though the number they blow doesn’t meet or exceed what is explicitly defined by law.

The Province, which declined to comment for this article, along with U of L as a whole, has to face the issue of drunk driving and underage drinking on a routine basis. “That’s the nature of the beast,” said Adkisson. “That’s what the college age group does, they drink.” The U of L Department of Public Safety, a fully functioning police department, takes the issue seriously, working closely with The Province and the LMPD to put an end to the danger.

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Photo: Michelle Eigenheer/The Louisville Cardinal

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