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The New Haven Police Department Traffic Division conducted its latest DUI checkpoint at the intersection of College and George streets on Feb. 9 and 10, from 7:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. Two supervisors oversaw seven officers who worked on the line and stopped every car that drove through. No arrests were made during the checkpoint.

“Tonight, we haven’t had a high traffic rate. … We haven’t had any drunks come through yet,” Lieutenant Mark O’Neill, district manager for downtown and one of two supervisors at the night’s checkpoint, said at 11:43 p.m., almost five hours after the checkpoint opened. “I’m hoping that it’s because nobody is drinking and not that they’re going around us.”

It all depends on the night, he said. In the past, O’Neill has seen five DUI charges in one night on Sargent Drive. On State Street, he’s seen three in one night.

The state decides where checkpoints are allowed to take place. For example, checkpoints cannot take place on a one-way straight or a dead-end road. O’Neill said drivers must have a way to exit for a checkpoint to be legal.

For this reason, drivers coming down College Street can choose to continue straight into the checkpoint or can turn left and opt not to be checked.

Despite that, some people driving under the influence still turn into the checkpoint. O’Neill said some drivers do not read the signs or assume they have something to do with construction or an accident.

“If people are under the influence of alcohol or drugs — which is what these checkpoints look for — they don’t necessarily think of making that right and then the left and then the right,” said Charles Grasso, a retired police sergeant and member of the DUI Task Force, who has commanded more than 25 DUI checkpoints. “They don’t realize that they’re in it until they’re in it.”

A large neon sign at the opening of the checkpoint indicates to drivers that the checkpoint is taking place. Police announce of the checkpoint in local newspapers three days in advance. In the Elm City, David Hartman, the police media liaison, also announces checkpoints in his police brief before they occur.

Connecticut is the seventh-strictest state in terms of penalizing DUIs, according to research published in October by Alina Comoreanu, senior researcher for Wallethub. Arizona topped the list as the strictest state and South Dakota was deemed the least strict. The study evaluated 15 key metrics such as minimum jail time, minimum fines, administrative license suspension length and mandatory ignition lock length after a DUI.

While the checkpoints can catch people driving under the influence, the announcements about the checkpoints are meant to deter people from drinking and driving, according to O’Neill.

“Visibility deters crime overall. It shows the community that we’re out there,” Grasso said. “When there is a crime of opportunity, if there are visible police officers, the opportunity goes away.”

At the checkpoint, the cars stop and the officers introduce themselves and conduct a brief interview, asking two to three questions like, “Have you had anything to drink today?” and, “Where are you going?” During the questioning, the officers look for signs of drinking like slurred speech.

If someone is sober and there is no suspicion of alcohol, the stop should last no more than 10 to 15 seconds. But if the officer suspects the driver of drinking, the driver is pulled over to the curb and the police conduct a field sobriety test.

Because the locations of the checkpoints change every month, it is difficult to establish where drunk driving generally occurs, O’Neill said. The department patrols different high-traffic areas during different checkpoints, he explained.

“Here, we have the bars downtown. We have a high traffic rate. We do State Street. We do Elm Street,” he said. “We do highly travelled roads.”

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of sobriety checkpoints in 1990.

Sammy Westfall | sammy.westfall@yale.edu