TYRONE - In friendly fashion, Altoona police officer Christy Heck approaches a driver, a young woman.
Heck is one of 14 officers from several local police departments working for the Blair County DUI Task Force, and the team is in Tyrone near the paper mill late on Aug. 24 for a sobriety checkpoint.
The motorist reciprocates the friendliness.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Eugene Widmer was the first DUI suspect of the evening on a recent checkpoint to be given a blood test for alcohol in his system. The hospital test eventually showed Widmer’s blood alcohol was 0.158 percent.
Then one of the three officers in Heck's contact team calls out "7-12" - indicating the woman's car is overdue for inspection.
"I had no idea," the motorist tells Heck.
Her lower lip starts to protrude, and suddenly it's like she's just been corrected by a teacher.
She pulls out of line and off Pennsylvania Avenue into a parking lot, which the checkpoint team calls the "secondary area," where other officers will deal with her transgression.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in a 1990 Michigan case that sobriety checkpoints do not violate a constitutional amendment against illegal searches and seizures.
Stopping vehicles at checkpoints is a seizure, but a reasonable one, according to the court.
The checkpoints up to that time had resulted in the arrest of about 1 percent of drivers stopped and so were effective enough in dealing with the problem of drunken driving to justify the "minimal intrusion," according to the judges.
"No one can seriously dispute the magnitude of the drunken driving problem or the states' interest in eradicating it," the court stated, citing an annual death toll of more than 25,000.
"Conversely, the weight bearing on the other scale - the measure of the intrusion on motorists stopped briefly at sobriety checkpoints - is slight."
A little later, out on the line of the checkpoint in Tyrone, a man on a motorcycle pulls up.
"I'm glad you guys are out," he says.
Then Heck sees the out-of-date inspection sticker.
So, like the young woman, the cyclist heads to the secondary area. There police find he doesn't have his driver's license with him.
For identification, he offers a picture ID card - the kind you get if the state takes your license.
That's confirmed when a records check reveals the man's license is suspended.
He's been riding a Yamaha from the early 1980s.
Now forbidden to drive, he asks police for permission to ride the bike just the block or two to his house. They say no to that request.
When he asks if he can just walk it, they tell him yes - but only if he walks with both legs on the same side, no straddling. And no idling the motor, either, to make the walking easier, they tell him.
Before setting off, the man agrees to talk to a reporter.
He's "disappointed" in what happened, he says.
He knew the bike was out of inspection, he says. But he'd just gotten it back on the road and was just using it to go between home and work to pay the bills, he says.
Still, he professes support for the checkpoint.
His cousin Tammy died as a passenger in a car wrecked by a drunken driver in Clearfield County in the early 1980s, he said.
After the man leaves, Duncansville Police Chief Jim Ott, operations supervisor at the checkpoint, said he will need to pay a $200 fine for driving with a suspended license.
The state suspended his license for failure to pay a fine for a ticket - for driving with an out-of-date inspection sticker.
Things had come full circle.
The Michigan ruling upholding checkpoints was a "much-criticized" decision, according to the website of Lawrence Taylor, a California DUI attorney.
In it, the court "overlooked the Constitution, focusing instead on the drunk driving problem," the site states.
That criticism began with the court minority in that case.
In upholding the checkpoints, the court majority "undervalu[e] the nature of the intrusion and exaggerat[e] the law enforcement need to use the roadblocks to prevent drunk driving," Justice William Brennan wrote in a dissenting opinion.
The majority judges were correct in saying the checkpoint intrusion is slight enough not to require absolute probable cause, according to Brennan.
But it's not so slight that it can take place without "some level of individualized suspicion" - which is "a core component of the protection the Fourth Amendment provides against arbitrary government action," Brennan wrote.
The majority erred in citing stops to locate illegal immigrants as justification for sobriety checkpoints, because the illegal immigrant checkpoints were permanent, and so less intimidating, than the surprise sobriety checkpoints, according to John Paul Stevens, who wrote another dissenting opinion.
People become aware of permanent checkpoints and can avoid or prepare for them, according to Stevens.
Moreover, while the government may need illegal immigrant checkpoints to locate illegal immigrants, it doesn't need sobriety checkpoints to locate drunken drivers, because police can locate drunken drivers simply by watching for their erratic driving, according to Brennan.
"Stopping every car might make it easier to prevent drunken driving," Brennan wrote. "[But it] is an insufficient justification for abandoning the requirements of individualized suspicion."
The Fourth Amendment was designed "to grant the individual a zone of privacy whose protections could be breached only where the reasonable requirements of the probable cause standard were met," Brennan wrote. "The Fourth Amendment rests on the principle that a true balance between the individual and society depends on the recognition of 'the right to be let alone - the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.'"
Sobriety checkpoints give officers more than a license to check for inebriation, according to Stevens.
"A Michigan officer who questions a motorist at a sobriety checkpoint has virtually unlimited discretion to detain the driver on the basis of the slightest suspicion. A ruddy complexion, an unbuttoned shirt, bloodshot eyes or a speech impediment may suffice to prolong the detention," Stevens wrote.
It's not just the guilty who may have a problem with it.
"To be law abiding is not necessarily to be spotless, and even the most virtuous can be unlucky," he wrote. "[T]hose who have found - by reason of prejudice or misfortune - that encounters with the police may become adversarial or unpleasant without good cause will have grounds for worrying at any stop designed to elicit signs of suspicious behavior. Being stopped by the police is distressing even when it should not be terrifying, and what begins mildly may by happenstance turn severe."
Not long after the start of the checkpoint, officers from roving patrols connected with the checkpoint bring a man to the bus parked in the secondary area.
"I've never been arrested in my life," the man says. "I've never been convicted of anything."
"I had a couple beers," the man says.
He lived right up the street, he adds.
"What about my car?" he asks.
He argues that police could use their time more productively by going after people who perpetrated worse crimes. He speaks of someone "dealing drugs every night."
"I go down to the club and a have a couple beers, and I go home," he says. "She's going to love this."
He is afraid his wife is going to have a heart attack, he says. She isn't well.
His preliminary breath test shows he has a blood alcohol level of 0.126 percent, one of the officers says.
"Am I going to jail?" the man asks.
"No," an officer replies.
"I hope not," the man says.
He has the aging face of a fighter, a strong man. He looks like an aging athlete.
He submits to the taking of blood. It has the feel of the situation crossing some kind of line, that a scrub-suited technician would be placing a needle into his body to draw fluids from inside him, as a matter of law. He has gotten himself into a serious difficulty.
"I haven't done anything wrong, ever," he says.
"I was down at the club," he said. "I had two beers. I was watching the football game with my buddies. I said I'm going home. I'm tired."
He went to the club at about 9:30 p.m. or a quarter of 10.
It is now 11:33 p.m.
The officer explains that if the blood test comes back positive, he will file a criminal complaint. A preliminary hearing would follow.
His wife can't drive, the man says. So the officers arrange to take him home. The man lives nearby.
"I'll have to handcuff you," the officer says.
The man looks like he might be ready to cry.
After the man is gone, Ott explains that the roving officers working the outskirts of the checkpoint stopped him after witnessing him make a problematic turning maneuver.
At the bus, the man's eyes were glassy, watering and bloodshot, his face was flushed, all signs of inebriation, Ott says.
He kept repeating himself, another sign, Ott points out.
His saying he'd only had "a couple" means he probably had several, says Ott, "based on 19 years on this job," he adds.
He calls to another officer for confirmation of this, and the officer provides it.
The Blair County DUI Task Force has been operating checkpoints for decades.
In the 1980s, the county got occasional grants for Operation Road Watch, according to task force coordinator Christopher Cohn.
Around 1990, the grants became annual, and that led to creation of the task force, Cohn said.
For years, money was stable at about $36,000 annually, and the task force ran checkpoints, phantom checkpoints - in which a couple officers place equipment on the roadside to make it seem like there's a checkpoint - and "Cops in Shops," a program designed to nab underage drinkers and adults who buy for them.
Then about three years ago, the state cut the funding in half.
So the Task Force does fewer checkpoints and no Cops in Shops.
This year, the Task Force plans six checkpoints and six roving patrols.
A local department requests a checkpoint in its jurisdiction, with statistics on crashes and DUIs for a requested location that justify setting up there, according to Ott.
Late in the checkpoint, an officer brings in a man in his late 20s or early 30s, wearing a Penn State shirt.
As the officer reads the charges, the man sits with his head lowered, eyes cast downward, mouth shut tight - a study in dejection. He speaks in a monotone. You can see the movement of his breathing.
"Who is coming to get you?" the officer asks.
"My girlfriend," he says, glumly.
He consents to having blood drawn.
As he gets set to leave the bus in handcuffs, Ott asks, "You all right, guy?"
"I'm fine," he says, shrugging.
Altoona attorney Bruce Johnstone is conflicted about checkpoints.
It doesn't seem people should be subject to being stopped when simply passing by on the roads, he said.
It seems like overreaching to him.
But it's difficult morally to say "let drunk drivers drive where they want," he said. "Nobody wants drunk drivers driving around."
The government justifies checkpoints by saying the privacy intrusion is minimal and that public safety overrides it, he said.
That's reasonable, he said, but he doesn't like it.
"When I was a kid, there was the famous phrase, 'It's a free country,'" Johnstone said.
The country doesn't seem like that anymore, he said.
Court decisions have been chipping away, giving the police more discretion and authority, he said.
It troubles Johnstone further that the operators of sobriety checkpoints go beyond their ostensible purpose to nab people for violations other than driving under the influence.
As long as the police have got you there, they can get you for anything, he said.
How individual cases proceed depends on particular facts and the discretion of officers, he said.
"It's tough," he said. "I wouldn't want to make [those] decision[s]."
And most officers are honest and hard-working, he said.
However, the only remedy, the only consequence, if police overstep, is for the information to be thrown out by the court, he said.
"Try suing a police department," he said.
Unfortunately, police can generate their own reasonable suspicion, according to Johnstone.
Most officers don't think of themselves as intimidating, but they make many people nervous, and they can cite nervousness - a furtive look, darting eyes, fidgeting - as the basis for reasonable suspicion, according to Johnstone.
It's a circular process, he said.
Once questioning begins, it can go in unexpected directions.
The trigger can be trivial.
Police can stop motorists for a burned-out bulb over a license plate, he said.
It can happen to a guy who - too late - realizes he has a couple of anxiety pills in his pocket that his sister gave him.
If he's a rehabilitated convict, that contraband could send him back to prison for years.
"What started out as a burned-out license plate light goes on to ruin his life" - or a fair part of it, Johnstone said. "It's happening all the time."
Still, while it's a good idea to keep drunks off the road, "the invasion of privacy is a little too much," he said.
After unloading all the checkpoint equipment - paddleboard signs, orange cones, lighting equipment, flashers - but before setting up the checkpoint, an officer reads "Standard Operating Procedures."
All checkpoint officers gather around, standing in the parking lot that will become the checkpoint's "secondary area."
Reading the instructions can be helpful if a case goes to court, so a defense lawyer can't say the officers weren't told what they need to do, according to Ott.
The officers are patient with the droning recital and dull details, which they'd heard many times before, undoubtedly.
Checkpoints have been challenged in court, and that is "all the more reason" to take care in following the guidelines, Ott said. "I don't want to be the one creating case law to take it away."
Among the guidelines:
n Officers should make stops as brief as possible and try to limit them to 30 seconds. Suggested conversation: "Hello, I'm officer X of the Blair DUI Task Force. We are conducting a sobriety checkpoint. How are you tonight? Have you been through a checkpoint before?"
Officers want to make it a pleasant experience for motorists, said Ed Blontz, a volunteer who counted vehicles for the team. Sometimes motorists want to chat, which is OK, provided there isn't a backup of vehicles, Blontz said. A minimum of two officers approach every vehicle, for safety, Ott said. Three is preferred. One looks inside, alert for weapons and contraband, and one looks over the vehicle for obvious violations. Many of the stops took no more than 15 seconds.
n Officers should not ask drivers if they've been drinking nor detain motorists solely for refusing to talk to an officer. "Reasonable suspicion for a violation of law must be present for detention." The contact officer should address every motorist personally.
If a motorist said "none of your business," and the contact officer sees no evidence of a problem, he dismisses the motorist, because the officer has gotten what he wants, Cohn said.
Heck looks drivers in the eye, alert for the smell of alcohol or slurred speech. She may ask for simultaneous responses to two requests - Where is your driver's license? Where are you coming from? - because impaired drivers have trouble doing two things at once. Still, despite her effort to expose criminality, the people she encounters are rarely uncooperative, she said.
n The contact officer asks those showing "signs of impairment" to get out of their vehicles, then escorts them into the secondary area for testing, while another officer drives those motorists' vehicles into the secondary area. Motorists whose vehicles show evidence of summary violations drive themselves to the secondary area.
n Officers must conduct themselves in a professional manner and refrain from using tobacco and from eating or drinking while in public view at the checkpoint.
n Officers in the secondary area ask motorists for their driver's license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance and conduct field sobriety tests, then make arrests, if there's probable cause. Officers escort arrestees to the "lab site" - a bus parked in the secondary area - for blood draws.
n Safety/chase officers stationed at the entries to the checkpoint area sound their sirens to warn other checkpoint workers of impending problems. Roving units focus on areas likely to feed traffic into or away from the checkpoint. Officers may not stop motorists solely for avoiding a checkpoint "in a legal manner."
When roving officers see a motorist turn off as if to avoid the checkpoint, they usually follow, looking for indicators that constitute "reasonable suspicion" of impairment, Ott said.
That may include repeated weaving, he said.
Officers break off the surveillance when they see a driver is "safe," he said.
The guidelines also require that police set up checkpoints in a place and at at a time that statistics show is likely to be "fruitful" for impaired drivers, Cohn said.
In Blair County, there have been guns pulled - though not pointed at officers - fights, vandalism and dozens of attempts to flee, Cohn said.
Some motorists have been so drunk and "clueless" they've gone through checkpoints without realizing they need to stop, he added.
"I can certainly understand people saying there are constitutional issues," said Russ Montgomery, a Blair County assistant district attorney. "But the safety of the public outweighs those."
"Obviously the main point is deterring DUI," Montgomery said. "But once [officers] are there legally checking cars, if they see any obvious criminality, you want the police to take care of it."
Actually, police can walk up to you anywhere.
They can come up and ask your name, for example, but they can't compel you to stop or to give them any information, he said, unless there's some reasonable suspicion that justifies their stopping you.
A refusal to interact with such an officer doesn't create grounds for that officer to have reasonable suspicion that justifies his detaining you to investigate further, Montgomery said.
To the suggestion that most people would feel an obligation to interact with police in such a "mere encounter," he said, "I guess it gets to be coercive, but police are allowed to talk to people."
An officer who doesn't want to give his name talks about trying to outwit the people in the Tyrone area who hope to defeat the checkpoint.
Police set up a phony Facebook account and accepted "friend" requests, he said.
"Whatever they talk about, we listen," he said.
At the time he is speaking to a reporter, word hasn't gotten around yet to the local bars, he said.
If it had, it would be on Facebook, he said.
When word gets out, everybody gets on the phone to start texting, one official said.
The ones who are unaware and blunder into the checkpoint inebriated tend to be the ones without friends, one official said.
Apparently, word gets around, because at the end of the four-hour checkpoint shift, one of the officers said that "everybody at the Bullpen [a local bar] was talking about it."
The checkpoint team doesn't mind when word gets out. That's half the point: to get people thinking.
Maybe some bar patrons go home early, maybe some get a sober driver to take them home, said Dave McConnell, who got involved with the Blair County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving along with his wife, Janie, after her son, Ron Burk, 22, was killed in a crash with a drunken driver near Roaring Spring in 1995.
No drunken drivers come though the actual checkpoint in Tyrone. The two DUI arrestees were nabbed elsewhere in town.
But a couple of drunken passengers come through. "That's what we like to see - designated drivers," said Logan Township officer Chris Bender.
It can be dangerous duty.
Twice, cars have sped through checkpoints where Bender was working. One smacked against his flashlight. More cops are killed in vehicle collisions than by guns, Bender said.
Decades ago, Eugene Widmer had a friend who was a sheriff's deputy clap handcuffs on him to see what it felt like.
He hated it.
On the night of the recent checkpoint, Widmer experienced what it felt like for real, when Tyrone police arrested him near the checkpoint.
Widmer was the first DUI suspect, the man who told police he had only had a couple beers at his club.
He spoke with a Mirror reporter about a week after his arrest.
He's 73, a retired sporting goods salesman with pinched nerves, a bad back and a hard time walking - and a wife who needs a knee replacement they might need to put off because of the arrest.
"[It's] been doing a hell of a number on both of us," he said.
"I'm not an outlaw," he said. Nor a drunk, he added.
He had two beers and part of another - 9-ounce drafts, he said.
He sees the arrest as entrapment. The police used a burned-out brake light he didn't know about as justification to stop him, he said.
There's a drug house near his home and a bunch of bums in town, he said.
Police should be paying more attention to them and less to people like himself, Widmer said.
As part of his job, he used to sell guns. Now he might not be able to own one, he said.
Ron Givler, the Greenfield Township police chief who took him home from the checkpoint, is an acquaintance but told him he couldn't chat.
"This is business," Givler said.
Still, Givler said good night when they parted.
It wasn't one: Widmer never got to sleep afterwards.
"I've tried to lead a good life," he said. "I follow the rules and make friends."
Jennifer Morris is a medical lab tech from Nason Hospital. She draws blood from Widmer and Jeffrey A. Evanskey - the other DUI arrestee. Morris must maintain pristine custody of suspects' blood. She writes the arrestee's name, address and date of birth onto a chain-of-custody form, gets the arrestee to sign the form and places the pair of tubes for each arrestee into a biohazard bag with a tamper-proof seal.
The bags each go into an individual metal box that she padlocks. She doesn't have keys. The keys are in a secure location at the hospital. When she leaves the checkpoint with blood samples, she goes directly to the hospital, without stopping. Upon arriving, she tells the lab tech on duty she has "legal alcohol." The tech signs the key out, opens the box, ensures the seal is intact, performs the test on a sample and fills out a test report. The police come in person to pick up the report. You can't mail or fax or phone it in, Morris said.
Morris sometimes testifies in court about chain of custody.
She said she loves her job, partly because she likes to watch the cops do theirs.
During 22 years of checkpoints, arrestees have been mostly cooperative, she said.
Once, an arrestee was hitting the cops as they brought him in.
But she doesn't worry.
"They'll take care of me," she said.
She doesn't feel sorry for the arrestees.
"They shouldn't be drunk," she said.
Widmer ended up in the checkpoint bus lab after a roving patrol officer noticed one of the vehicle's brake lights was out at Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street. Widmer didn't yield to an oncoming car at a green light there while turning left, according to a news release from Tyrone police. After stopping Widmer, the officer smelled alcohol, then administered a field sobriety test, which Widmer failed. The hospital test eventually showed Widmer's blood alcohol was 0.158 percent.
Evanskey, 34, ended up in the checkpoint bus after a crash at Clay Avenue and Third Street in Tyrone.
Officers found his truck with its left front tire off, having hit a steel post, with beer cans strewn on the ground. Evanskey wasn't there. He called, however, and reported to 911 that someone had stolen his vehicle. Officers went to his home, found Evanskey inebriated and shaken up, and after taking a statement and investigating the crash found "his story didn't add up," according to a news release. Then Evanskey admitted he was the driver.
The hospital test showed his blood alcohol level was 0.154 percent, nearly twice the legal limit.
As the team sets up, residents from a housing development next door gather to watch. As the hours wear on, a couple of workers on break from their night shift at the paper mill come out on a second-floor landing overlooking the checkpoint and watch. The weather was pleasant. A prism light, kept inflated with a fan powered by a compressor, draws insects of many types, which crawl over its white fabric. There is a quiet esprit de corps, with no macho posturing.
Blontz sits in a camp chair on the sidewalk working his clicker. There are long periods with no vehicles coming through. Blontz has volunteered to help at sobriety checkpoints for about eight years, because his mother spent three months in the hospital after a head-on crash caused by a drunken driver 15 years ago.
She was riding in a vehicle with a friend who also ended up in the hospital.
The drunken driver - the driver of the other car - was killed.
He drank and drove when he was younger, Blontz said.
"But when it's that close to you," he said, "it's a reality check."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.