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Motorist Stops for Breath, Blood Samples Spur Anger, Apology

Motorist Stops for Breath, Blood Samples Spur Anger, Apology
Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead

By    |   Tuesday, 03 December 2013 05:03 PM

The Fort Worth, Texas, police chief has apologized for an operation that pulled drivers to the side of the road and asked them for breath, blood, and saliva samples for a federal research project on driving while impaired.

But the $7.9 million project, headed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is far from over, with similar police stops slated next year at about 300 sites in 60 cities around the nation.

The latest phase of the operation, staged in late November as part of the NHTSA's National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drugged Driving, included uniformed off-duty Fort Worth officers directing motorists into an area where they were met by technicians in lab coats who asked them to blow into a machine to test their blood-alcohol levels or to  provide either blood or saliva samples.

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Some drivers said they felt intimidated and pressured to participate.

Under fire, Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead issued an apology, saying, "I agree with our citizens' concerns, and I apologize for our participation. Any future federal survey of this nature, which jeopardizes the public's trust, will not be approved for the use of Fort Worth police," the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas said the searches "are among the most invasive police can conduct."

"We're glad the police chief recognizes that these supposedly voluntary searches should never have happened," Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, told Newsmax. "People have a right to expect that the police won't randomly stop people who aren't suspected of any wrongdoing and demand blood or saliva samples."

Burke expressed hope that "other cities take a lesson from Fort Worth's mistakes" and abstain from conducting similar tests, but that's not likely, as the Fort Worth operation was only a drop in the bucket of what the NHTSA has planned.

NHTSA spokeswoman Catherine Howden told Newsmax the operation was part of a three-year initiative to collect data about the number of people who drive under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The research requires partnerships with local police, who then set up road operations to usher randomly selected drivers into parking lots.

"More than 60 communities across the country will participate this year," Howden said. "The survey is conducted in the same manner in each location nationwide for the integrity of the research."

Howden said that driver participation was "completely voluntary and anonymous."

For some, the voluntary aspect doesn't moot the intimidation factor. One legal expert said the stops, as he understood the way they were conducted in Texas, could be unconstitutional.

Frank Colosi, a Fort Worth lawyer who received calls about the random traffic stops, said that even if drivers provided DNA voluntarily, other aspects of the program raise concerns.

"They tell the person, if they give the DNA, that it will go to a lab and that it's completely anonymous, that it can't be traced back," Colosi said. "But where NHTSA gets itself into a jam is if the person is impaired."

In that case, he asked, would police let a drunken driver leave the scene?

If they do, the liability and legal factors are significant, especially if that impaired motorist ends up hurting somebody or causing property damage, Colosi said.

But if they don't let the driver leave — if they confiscate his or her keys or take the driver into custody — the door is open for a lawsuit based on how the police learned of the impairment in the first place.

"It's a ticklish situation," Colosi said of the roadside-testing program.

Colosi also questioned the methodology, saying the way testers collect data wouldn't be meaningful in terms of statistical sampling.

"If only people who are going to volunteer for the survey are the people who are going to come back with clean results — and let's face it, that's what would happen — that would wreck the randomness of the survey," Colosi said.

To maintain the integrity of the study, those conducting the survey are secretly recording  drivers' breath and at the same time telling them that providing DNA is voluntary, he said.

"I think that what makes this an unconstitutional stop is that they pull the person over . . .  and while they're telling them it's voluntary, they're testing the person's breath at that moment. Attached to their clipboard or something is a tester," and the lab people are activating that without the driver's knowledge and consent, Colosi said.

Howden of the NHTSA said the agency has been conducting the research for 40 years. Colosi said that raises another issue.

"Does this survey really make a difference? Is it really effective? It would be interesting, for instance, to see what people do in their homes, too," he said. "But that doesn't make it constitutional to break down doors and look inside homes."

The study, according to the NHTSA, is intended to "estimate the prevalence of alcohol and drugs in drivers on our nation's roadways."

A previous study, conducted in 2007, included more than 9,000 drivers from around the United States, the NHTSA said.

The Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation was in charge of recruiting and collecting the DNA data — in partnership with various county and police officials — and reportedly made considerable effort to ensure the testing was both random and anonymous, the NHTSA said.

In 2,007 cases in which the driver was suspected of operating under the influence, "a supervisor intervened and obtained a preliminary breath-test reading. If the driver had a blood-alcohol content about .05, we insured he/she got safely home," the NHTSA documents said.

The first NHTSA National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drugged Driving was conducted in 1973. Subsequent surveys were conducted in 1986, sponsored by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and in 1998, sponsored by both the NHTSA and the IIHS.

In 2007, the NHTSA sponsored the survey, along with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Institute of Justice.

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The Fort Worth, Texas, police chief has apologized for an operation that pulled drivers to the side of the road and asked them to provide breath, blood, and saliva samples for a federal research project on driving while impaired. But the nationwide program continues.
Tuesday, 03 December 2013 05:03 PM
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