Sunday, December 10, 2017
Public safety

Pinellas brings back DUI checkpoints

The guy in the Johnny Cash T-shirt has the look of someone expecting the worst. He is oddly reserved as he is put through field sobriety tests, and seems only slightly disheartened when his hands are cuffed behind his back.

Had he been looking across the parking lot around that same time, he might have seen someone else's night also fall apart. As a young couple sit in their beat-up Toyota with the keys tossed on the roof by deputies, a half-filled Big Gulp cup is removed from the car. And then an empty bottle of Captain Morgan rum follows.

It is nearing 3 a.m. Saturday and authorities are wrapping up a sobriety checkpoint on northbound U.S. 19 between Curlew and Tampa roads.

They have been out here for more than five hours, and the final tally includes five DUI arrests and a handful of other assorted offenses.

And yet it is not the backlog at the jail door that tells the story of the night. It is the more than 300 vehicles that were stopped briefly and then allowed to proceed. It is the thousands of cars that drove through, or watched from the southbound lanes.

The checkpoint is as much about prevention as it is punishment. Deputies like to call it increased awareness, but the reality is that it's more of an implied threat.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office DUI squad is back in business, and those who drink and drive should understand what that means.

"We're out here to save lives. We're out here to prevent injuries,'' said Sgt. Howard Skaggs, who runs the squad. "There was a lot more of this problem on the streets that was not being addressed, and it's very important for us to go after it.''

Budget problems led former Sheriff Jim Coats to disband the DUI squad in 2008. The impact was immediate. Within a year, DUI arrests had fallen by nearly half and alcohol-related fatalities had almost doubled.

Months after his election last fall, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri reinstated the DUI squad to work overnight shifts Wednesday through Saturday.

"Once we survived all the trials and tribulations with the budget, it was very important for us to bring this back,'' said Chief Deputy George Steffen, who oversaw the checkpoint. "It was something (Gualtieri) felt very strongly about. He felt it was the right thing to do, he pushed hard for it and we did it.''

If there was any disagreement about the checkpoint Friday night, drivers kept it to themselves. Cars were randomly pulled over (every sixth car until 1 a.m., and then every third car after that) and a contact officer asked to see driver's licenses.

While licenses and plates were being run, the contact officer would carry on a conversation with the driver ("How was the concert?'' "You guys Lightning fans?'' "Are you just getting off work?'') to look for signs of impairment.

The average stop time was less than two minutes.

One driver was arrested when deputies discovered he was in a car with a woman, and two children, and he had an active domestic violence injunction against him.

Several were cited for driving with a suspended or revoked license. Instead of being arrested, most were given a notice to appear in court, and their car was impounded.

Even that was done as harmlessly as possible.

One woman walked straight from her impounded car to the back seat of a cab that was being held by deputies two lanes away.

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