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Freedom vs. safety

The debate over sobriety checkpoints is a tough one. But if the Legislature decides in favor of freedom over safety, it will follow one of the founding principles of the country and the state.

Oregon used to have sobriety checkpoints. In 1987, the state Supreme Court found that they conflict with the state constitutional guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure.

The case arose in Lane County, where a woman, late at night, was detained at a roadblock several hours after having a drink. She was cold sober, but she was grilled by an officer and forced to perform sobriety tests, such as standing on one leg without falling over, according to an account of the case given before the House Rules Committee this week. Then she was let go.

Before she was stopped, she had seen, on the freeway, a driver who was obviously drunk. As far as is known, nothing happened to that public menace.

Rep. Andy Olson of Albany and others have proposed that voters amend the constitution so that sobriety checkpoints would again be allowed. Law enforcement supports the idea. The supporters point out that in the majority of states, checkpoints are allowed and have proved to lower the rate of drunken-driving deaths and injuries substantially, by about 20 percent.

The backers say that checkpoints have a deterrent effect. They are announced in advance, but their location is not given. Knowing that there's a chance of being stopped, drivers might well decide not to drive after drinking — assuming they are still capable of deciding — or not to drink at all that night.

So the argument for resuming the checkpoints is strong.

It would be even stronger if the roadblocks could be limited to sniffing for alcohol on people's breath. But that's not how they work. Instead, officers customarily ask drivers for their license and insurance.

Stopping citizens without cause and demanding they produce papers clearly goes beyond what the constitution allows. That element of liberty is so crucial that it outweighs even a reduction in the traffic toll.