St. Charles County, Mo., drivers pulled over at several recent weekend safety checkpoints received something other than the usual verbal warnings, traffic citations or even tickets for drunken driving.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Thursday that private government subcontractors working on behalf of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration instead asked motorists at three locations on Friday and Saturday to voluntarily submit blood and saliva samples in exchange for cash. Two off-duty county sheriff’s deputies in marked patrol cars initially flagged down the drivers.
Less than one week later, the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department now says it will no longer participate in future surveys. Lt. Dave Tiefenbrunn acknowledges some motorists might have thought participation was mandatory, though no action was taken against drivers who refused to stop.
“It doesn’t give the public the impression that it’s voluntary if there’s a uniformed officer out there, so we would avoid that circumstance in the future,” he said.
Impaired drivers were not arrested. Instead, survey takers were supposed to make sure such drivers got home safely. The lieutenant said he didn’t know how many drivers, if any, were removed from behind the wheel.
The federal agency said in a written statement that its tests have been conducted for the past 40 years are part of a national survey to measure the prevalence of impaired driving. The results are used for policy development, educational campaigns and other harm reduction efforts.
The agency said it expanded its study in 2007 to include the voluntary collection of saliva and blood sample but does not match those samples to individual donors.
“As a data-driven agency NHTSA is constantly conducting research to better understand vehicle and behavior issues that impact safety on U.S. roadways,” the agency stated. “NHTSA always works closely with state and local safety officials and local law enforcement to conduct these surveys.”
Tiefenbrunn said deputies did not approach drivers or have anything to do with the survey, and the information gathered was anonymous. Those assurances failed to mollify critics.
Tony Rothert, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, said using uniformed officers to conduct the survey raised serious constitutional issues.
“It’s great that they say they’re not going to do it again, but they did violate people’s constitutional rights,” he said. “Drivers do not believe they have the opportunity to ignore a police officer telling them to stop.”
The police chief of Fort Worth, Texas, recently apologized for his officers’ participation in the survey after complaints from motorists. The governor of Alabama and that state’s ACLU chapter has also raised concerns that the tests violated civil rights.
The safety administration did not answer questions about how much the deputies were paid, and referred inquiries about the drivers’ compensation to a 2007 report which indicated payments ranged from $5 to $65 – and as much as $100 to recalcitrant drivers who were later convinced to take part.
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