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Ross official opposes joining DUI force

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Monday, July 24, 2006

One of Allegheny County's largest municipalities is considering joining a DUI task force, and at least one commissioner wonders whether it's a good idea.

Ross Commissioner Chris Eyster, a criminal defense lawyer, questions the effectiveness of drunken driving checkpoints, which he said stop hundreds of motorists while resulting in few actual arrests for drunken driving.

"I'd rather see a violent crime task force, where they have a team respond to violent crime in a hurry," he said. "Why single out DUIs• I think the pendulum has swung way too far."

Ross commissioners are expected to vote tonight on joining the North Hills DUI Task Force, whose members include the Northern Regional Police Department -- which covers Pine, Marshall, Bradford Woods and Richland -- and police departments in Etna, Shaler, West Deer and Indiana Township.

The commissioners meet at 7:30 p.m. at the municipal building, 1000 Ross Municipal Drive. Ross, population 32,551 in the 2000 census, is among the county's five largest municipalities.

Since its creation in 1994, the task force has stopped 32,026 vehicles in 98 enforcement activities, including checkpoints and roving patrols. Of those stops, 285 -- or less than 1 percent -- resulted in arrests.

"They're scooping up just a few people and detaining a lot of innocent people," Eyster said. "I have a problem with that,"

A low arrest rate does not mean that the checkpoints are ineffective, said Rebecca Shaver, regional executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Harrisburg.

"The word has gotten out that a sobriety checkpoint is taking place, and people are not drinking and driving," she said.

Task force coordinator Scott Rick, an officer with Northern Regional, said authorities do not know how often checkpoints or roving patrols would be conducted in Ross. Ross officers would also participate in patrols and checkpoints in other member communities.

Eyster questioned if enforcement efforts would be done often enough to be a deterrent. He expects some commissioners to join him in opposition, but does not know if he has a majority of the nine-member board on his side.

"I'm taking a politically unpopular position," he said.

Commissioner Grace Stanko said she will support joining the task force. She mentioned a former neighbor who became a paraplegic after being hit by a drunken driver at the age of 5.

"People should be responsible drinkers. If they're going to be drinking excessively, they should do it in their living room or stay overnight wherever they go," she said.

The task force operates on state grants, most recently receiving $37,000 for the 2005-06 fiscal year, which ends in September. Rick said it is too late to change the grant application for 2006-07, but grant funding could be increased in the future if Ross joins.

"Our task force could grow, and with it growing, I'd like to see more money come to it to run more events in more locations," he said.

In addition to Ross, Franklin Park is considering joining the task force, police Chief Don Dorsch said. The borough council may consider it in August.

"It seems like it's a worthwhile effort to get DUI drivers off the roadways," Dorsch said. "Joining the local police departments surrounding us seemed like it might be a good thing."

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