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Originally published December 28, 2009 at 6:40 PM | Page modified December 29, 2009 at 7:29 AM

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Police: Twitter used to avoid DUI checkpoints

Trying to elude arrest for drunken driving, young people are using Twitter, text messages and other technology to keep each other informed about the location of sobriety checkpoints, police say.

McClatchy Newspapers

FRESNO, Calif. — In a ritual nearly as familiar as Santa Claus and crowded stores, police agencies have again stepped up enforcement of drunken-driving laws this holiday season.

Studies have found sobriety checkpoints reduce alcohol-related crashes because they create awareness about the risk of arrest.

But some public-safety officials say that message might be lost on the group most at risk — young drivers.

Trying to elude arrest for drunken driving, young people use technology to tell each other about the location of sobriety checkpoints, said Sgt. Dave Gibeault, head of the Fresno Police Department's traffic unit.

iPhone app

Tools include Twitter, text messages and an iPhone application specifically designed to identify checkpoints, Gibeault said.

Gibeault thinks young people are drinking more, in part because clubs aimed at that population have proliferated. And young drinkers can check their cellphones to find out where police are stopping motorists, he said.

His own daughter often sends him text messages about where she's heard he's running checkpoints.

On Twitter, drivers can warn each other with "tweets" listing intersections where police have set up checkpoints.

Fresno attorney Brian Andritch sees nothing wrong with efforts to spread the word about checkpoints.

Andritch, who used to prosecute drunken drivers when he worked in the Fresno County District Attorney's Office, now defends them — and warns others about sobriety checkpoints on Twitter.

"I don't see how it's any different than what police are doing in promoting checkpoints," he said.

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Gibeault said it's one thing to spread the word about checkpoints in general, which police want. It's quite another to provide information that might encourage people to drive drunk, he said.

Wayne Ziese, a spokesman for the California Office of Traffic Safety, said he's heard stories about young people using technology to avoid drunken-driving arrests.

Ziese said law enforcement hasn't figured out how to respond to the more immediate and precise information about checkpoints circulating on the Web and via cellphones. The Office of Traffic Safety provides funding to help with such enforcement, including more than $5 million to Fresno County agencies in the last five years.

In any case, the purpose of the checkpoints isn't to take drunken drivers off the road, Gibeault said. The point is to prevent them from getting in the car in the first place.

In 2001, experts convened by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reached the same conclusion. The group concluded checkpoints reduced alcohol-related accidents by an average 20 percent.

"Although checkpoints may remove some drinking drivers from the road, their primary goal is to reduce driving after drinking by increasing the perceived risk of arrest," the researchers said.

Saturation patrols — in which police focus on troubled areas with a lot of officers on the move — are more effective than checkpoints at catching drunken drivers, Gibeault said.

In the last three winter holiday seasons, more than 18,000 vehicles have passed through checkpoints in Fresno and Madera counties, according to the Office of Traffic Safety. Only 1 percent of the motorists were arrested for driving under the influence.

By contrast, saturation patrols conducted during the same time produced seven times as many arrests for driving under the influence.

"I was a hard sell on checkpoints," Gibeault concedes. "I wanted to put drunk drivers in jail."

But he said he learned over time how effective checkpoints are.

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