Gov. Tom Wolf signs law that protects regional DUI checkpoints
Small police departments across Pennsylvania are celebrating freshly inked legislation that protects their right to collaborate with other agencies to run DUI checkpoints, weeks after a state Supreme Court decision put such enforcement efforts in jeopardy.
Gov. Tom Wolf signed House Bill 1614 into law Tuesday afternoon.
“It will save time, money and potentially lives,” said Greg Rowe, legislation and policy director for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which helped draft the so-called “correction bill” that cleared both chambers of the General Assembly last week. “DUI checkpoints and task forces get drunken drivers off the streets and roads.”
The Wolf administration did not describe the bill as a DUI fix, but rather as an illegal guns enforcement bill. Wolf’s office said the law will “allow the Attorney General and officers from an assisting municipal police department to prosecute a person for possessing a firearm when not permitted.”
The law includes language that explicitly allows municipal police departments to enter into joint agreements and participate in task forces, which could include teaming up with other departments to conduct sobriety checkpoints. It also reiterates the state attorney general’s power to convene regional task forces related to other types of illegal activity and seeks to prevent such efforts from being challenged in court.
Scrambling to ‘reverse’ judicial interpretation
On the last page of the six-page bill, HB 1614 declares that a portion of the bill was “intended to reverse the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s interpretation” of state law in the recent case Commonwealth v. Hlubin.
That May 31 Supreme Court ruling had threatened to halt joint DUI efforts — unless local police officers obtained approval via agreements or legislation voted on by elected officials of the municipality that employs them. The ruling determined that, except in cases of emergency, municipalities must enact ordinances under the state’s Intergovernmental Cooperation Act to allow officers to participate in arrests outside their jurisdiction.
The decision sent local police, prosecutors and public safety advocates scrambling to understand the impact, with many departments putting DUI checkpoints on hold and shifting to more roving patrols in the meantime.
State lawmakers moved rapidly to advance the legislative fix.
The House passed a final version of HB 1614 on Wednesday, on a 200-1 vote.
The state Senate passed the bill 50-0 on Thursday. It cleared the House floor again Friday on a concurrent vote, 194-3, sending the legislation to Wolf’s desk.
Rep. Dan Miller, D-Mt. Lebanon, was among the three lawmakers who cast “no” votes, along with Democrats from the Philadelphia region, Reps. Mary Jo Daley and Chris Rabb. Miller was the only one to vote against the bill during its final passage on the House floor.
Miller said he opposed the legislation not because he’s against regional DUI checkpoints or the attorney general’s right to convene task forces, but because he wants to promote “local control” and ensure municipal officials beholden to local voters have a say in such operations.
DUI checkpoints “are extremely important and can really improve safety,” said Miller, a former Mt. Lebanon commissioner.
“It’s just that police officers should be accountable to elected authority,” he said.
Applies ‘retroactively’ to 1982
Portions of the law take effect immediately, the language says, but the issue of local police not having to secure approval from municipal officials will “apply retroactively to law enforcement conduct on or after June 15, 1982.”
Proponents of the bill say that it’s not so much a brand-new law but rather aims to clarify language in response to the latest Supreme Court ruling.
For decades, police departments have made agreements with each other through the state’s Municipal Police Jurisdiction Act to staff DUI task forces and sobriety checkpoints instead of having those agreements approved by elected municipal officials, attorney Michael Steven Sherman said.
Rowe said the legislation will “obviate the need for local governments to enact legislation” to conduct regional sobriety checkpoints.
“There’s a need for multiple agencies to cooperate because it’s a manpower issue,” David Andrascik of the Pennsylvania DUI Association. He noted that it can take between 13 and 15 officers to properly shut down a major thoroughfare, which is more than many Western Pennsylvania departments have in their local police departments.
Other limitations still exist on when and where police can conduct DUI checkpoints.
Officials must demonstrate during planning that a particular roadway is “known to have a problem with a lot of drunk driving” and related accidents, injuries, fatalities during specific times of the day, week or year, Andrascik said.
“They have to show that data in order for that checkpoint to be a valid site,” he said.
PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said there are 51 task forces that run DUI checkpoints statewide.
More than 200 drivers, 36 passengers and 45 pedestrians died during alcohol-related crashes in 2017, the latest data available from the Pennsylvania DUI Association. More than 70% of alcohol-related crashes happened at night.
On holidays, 12% of all crashes involved alcohol, and 37% of deaths from crashes over holiday weekends were related to alcohol, data show.
The most crashes tend to happen on Labor Day, before and after Thanksgiving and before and after Christmas. In 2017, four people died in 47 alcohol-related crashes on the Fourth of July.
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .