An area lawmaker says Tennessee police officers shouldn't be helping federal contractors hold roadblocks where they ask motorists for cheek swabs and blood samples as part of a national drunken- and drugged-driving survey.
State Sen. Mike Bell's bill forbidding law enforcement officers from taking part in the roadblocks passed the Senate unanimously and now rests in the House Criminal Justice Committee.
The Riceville Republican, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he has no quarrel with the goals of the program, which is sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"They may be seeking information that is valuable to know how safe our roads are. I have no issue with the company conducting a survey," Bell said. "The problem starts when you have law enforcement making the stop. You have a stop that is no longer voluntary. You have a stop that is a law enforcement action and it's being done without probable cause. That's wrong."
Such roadblocks were held last year in Knoxville, Memphis and Tipton County, Tenn., among some 60 locales around the nation. The National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drugged Driving has been conducted roughly every 10 years since the 1970s and aims to gather accurate data on drunken and drugged driving.
One person is killed every 53 minutes -- 27 a day, close to 10,000 a year -- in drunken-driving crashes, according to information provided by the NHTSA. No spokesperson from the federal agency would speak on the record and study director John Lacey, with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calverton, Md., was unavailable for comment.
The NHTSA background statement said the $7.9 million survey "provides useful data about alcohol and drug use by drivers, and participation is completely voluntary and anonymous."
The way it works is that a roadblock is set up, manned by off-duty police officers, and drivers are directed to a parking lot or other place out of traffic, where a researcher asks them to participate in the survey. Drivers are offered $10 for a saliva sample taken in a cheek swab, or $50 for a blood sample.
The NHTSA said researchers do not take any kind of identifying or personal information from drivers and there are signs saying drivers have the right to say no.
But a Fort Worth, Texas, woman told the NBC affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth in November she felt intimidated and pressured when she was directed by a police officer to pull over. Kim Cope said she refused to provide a saliva or blood sample but told the station she finally agreed to a Breathalyzer test "just because I thought it would be the easiest way to leave."
Another couple said they had to tell the contractor "no" 10 times before they were allowed to leave.
Later, the Fort Worth police chief publicly apologized for his officers' participation in the roadblock.
In Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley asked the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to investigate after residents complained about roadblocks held in Bibb and St. Clair counties last year. The researchers had worked with local law enforcement but not notified state government, according to the investigation report.
The NHTSA's statement said the current survey is nearly complete, but Bell said he doesn't feel that's any reason to withdraw his bill.
"It may be 1o years before they come back, but if they do come back, I think the citizens of the state need to know we're going to do all we can to protect their constitutional rights and protect them from unconstitutional searches and seizures," he said.
He places no faith in the researchers' assurance that no identifying information is collected or kept.
"I don't trust the federal government to protect the privacy of people who are participating, even voluntarily. ... The federal government doesn't have a very good track record on keeping our citizens' information private -- all we have to do is look at the [National Security Agency] and some of the things that have gone on."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-757-6416.
Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...