PEACH VALLEY – If you had a few drinks on Saturday evening then decided to take a drive along Highway 6 between New Castle and Silt, it may not have been a good night.An assorted group of law enforcement officers from around Garfield County were manning a sobriety checkpoint in front of Coal Ridge High School.The goal of the checkpoint, said Carbondale Police Chief Gene Schilling, is not to corral more drunk drivers, but to offer a deterrent for people to even get behind the wheel after they’ve been drinking alcohol.”It’s intended as a deterrent. That’s the primary purpose,” said Schilling. “If people see (checkpoints) out there all the time, then they’ll say to themselves, ‘I could hit a DUI checkpoint, and I’m not going to drink and drive.'”Checkpoints must be announced beforehand, and signs must alert approaching drivers. A bright orange traffic sign, which read “Sobriety checkpoint ahead,” was positioned two miles away. Such advanced warning could tip off drunk drivers and allow them to avoid the checkpoint, which was probably true at least once Saturday evening. Dina Fuentes, an office assistant at the Carbondale Police Department, said her mother was driving along Highway 6 Saturday night when she saw a car pull a U-turn after passing the warning sign.”She was going up to Peach Valley and she saw a car stop and turn around,” said Fuentes.
The warning sign may prompt some vehicles to pull a U-turn or find another route, but the checkpoint still works.Schilling said that often enough the drivers who are the most drunk simply don’t see the sign. Schilling recalls one incident when a woman was so drunk she ran over an entire row of traffic cones as she was pulling into the checkpoint. Another memorable stop was a car containing two drunk young men. The one in the passenger seat was vomiting out the window as the car pulled into the checkpoint.Saturday’s checkpoint was part of a statewide program instituted in 2002 after Colorado legislators picked up on the success such checkpoints were having in other states, Schilling said.”It’s been proven by other states that (having checkpoints) reduces drinking and driving,” Schilling said.Sgt. Chris Wurtsmith of the Carbondale Police Department agrees, saying, “There are a lot of people out there who have been impacted by the effects of alcohol.”Saturday was the fourth checkpoint Wurtsmith has worked, and he thinks most drivers are grateful for the service.
“Most people really appreciate it and see the value of it,” said Wurtsmith.But not everyone agrees with checkpoints. Around 9 p.m., a small group of protesters from Marble and New Castle arrived at the sobriety checkpoint with flags and a sign.Marble resident Jerry Begly said that he stops by all checkpoints to hand out flyers explaining why sobriety checkpoints are a violation of citizens’ rights. He explained that his mission is to inform citizens as well as law enforcement.Wurtsmith said there was a drunk-driving incident that made the situation interesting.”It’s ironic that we get a call for a DUI-related accident (in Carbondale) involving an infant at the same time these people show up to protest our sobriety checkpoints,” he said.The flyers quote the Bill of Rights, Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, which cites issues involving unlawful search and seizure. The flyer said that at a checkpoint there is no probable cause and no warrant.
The reason checkpoints are announced and signs are placed is to warn drivers to make sure their rights are not violated.Wurtsmith said he thinks sobriety checkpoints work. Some numbers indicate that DUIs are on the decline.Since 2002, when checkpoints first began, DUI cases in Colorado’s 9th Judicial District, which contains Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties, have dropped steadily each year.As far as education goes, Officer Eduardo Gomez of the Colorado State Patrol certainly believes checkpoints, along with a number of other factors, are helping drive those numbers down by heightening awareness of the dangers of drunk driving.”I think people are getting smarter,” said Gomez. He cited advocacy groups, saturation patrols and advertising as sources of increased awareness.”There’s a stronger movement for responsibility and designated driving,” said Gomez.In each county of the state, there are two checkpoints each summer, when DUIs tend to go up. Representatives of each law enforcement department from the county participate, as do members of the State Patrol.But some think two just isn’t enough.
“I haven’t noticed a decline in DUIs,” said Officer Kirk Wilson of the Rifle Police Department. Wilson suggested that checkpoints should be used more often than simply twice a summer.”These are under-utilized right now,” said Wilson.Kelley Cox contributed to this report.Contact John Schroyer at 945-8515 ext. email@example.com
Breakout box:DUI cases opened in Colorado’s 9th Judicial District (Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties):In 2002: 930In 2003: 875In 2004: 798In 2005: 726
DUI cases opened in Colorado’s 5th Judicial District (Eagle, Summit and Clear Creek counties):In 2002: 1,504In 2003: 1,400In 2004: 1,394In 2005: 1,269
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Some local law enforcement don’t like the red flag gun law, but they’re still learning how to enforce it if they have to.