EDITORIAL: Your papers, please

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Should Congress make English the official language of the U.S.?

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While traffic congestion grows ever worse across the country, Congress continues to divert more than a billion dollars in taxes paid at the gasoline pump to subsidize moneymaking schemes for local governments. This misallocation of resources is a stumbling block not only to our economic prosperity, but also to our freedom.

In the past four years, the U.S. Department of Transportation has taken $515 million from taxpayers nationwide for distribution to the states in the form of “alcohol-impaired driving countermeasures incentive grants.” An additional $897 million went to “state and community highway safety grants.”

This sounds innocuous enough, but federal taxpayers should not foot the bill for what is clearly a local concern. Congressional strings on the funds have also ensured that a large share is doled out to so-called “sobriety checkpoints” of dubious value. According to an analysis released on Saturday by the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California at Berkeley, the Golden State converted $30 million in federal drunk-driving enforcement grants into a tidy profit of $42 million last year by impounding vehicles at sobriety checkpoints for infractions unrelated to impaired driving.

The scheme works as follows. Uncle Sam picks up the tab for the overtime pay required to station more than a dozen police officers in the middle of the road, ostensibly to stop and identify drunk drivers. Because dangerous, hard-core drinkers learn how to avoid these checkpoints, the rest of us are left to be inconvenienced while officers search for citations to write to justify the operation’s expense. Drivers asked for their papers during such stops can have their cars impounded if they fail to produce them. With each car towed in California generating $2,035 in fees and fines on average, local agencies have a significant financial incentive to focus on these violations. The city of Montebello was the worst offender last year, impounding 62 cars for every one drunk-driving arrest made at its checkpoints.

While such efforts are justified with emotional appeals about the carnage caused when drunks take the wheel, statistics suggest that putting police on the streets in roving patrols looking for signs of bad driving is far more effective in spotting the habitual drinkers that pose the greatest danger to the public. Data from Pennsylvania indicate that such patrols could achieve the same number of impaired-driving arrests with 53 percent less manpower and 100 percent less inconvenience to innocent drivers. Yet, with federal grants at stake, the Keystone State warmly embraces roadblocks.

This clumsy, police-state tactic was once reserved for places such as the Soviet Union. We join with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in lamenting the judicial contortions used to whitewash this unconstitutional practice. “Indeed, I rather doubt that the Framers of the Fourth Amendment would have considered ‘reasonable’ a program of indiscriminate stops of individuals not suspected of wrongdoing,” Justice Thomas wrote in a 2000 dissent on a checkpoint case.

Ending federal funding for wasteful roadblocks would restore respect for this vital constitutional protection against unwarranted intrusion.

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