Texas Police Ask Drivers for Blood Samples, Secretly Test Those Who Refuse
November 20, 2013 5:50 PM
NHTSA said the study is valuable for justifying new laws to put more mildly intoxicated drivers in prison
Police in Fort Worth, Texas (the fifth largest city in the nation's second most populous state) raised the mother of all controversies when they set up a roadblock and began to make bizarre requests of motorists -- most of whom appeared to be entirely law abiding.
I. Fort Worth Medical Samples -- Voluntary or Police Seizure?
The Fort Worth Police Department
(FWPD) installed the roadblock north of the city during daytime traffic. They flagged down some motorists at random and asked them to give breath, saliva, and blood samples. The FWPD claims the effort was "100 percent voluntary" and anonymous.
It acknowledges that most of the drivers had broken no law, but it said the effort was valuable to federal contractors working to complete a 3 year, $7.9M USD survey on behalf of the
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
(NHTSA) aimed a collecting medical data for use in combatting drunk driving.
But some of the motorists who submitted samples are outraged saying that the program infringed on their Constitutional rights and that the FWPD's "please" did not make it clear that
the seizure of medical samples
Kim Cope -- one of those sampled --
to a local NBC affiliate that the police acted like she would not be allowed to continue until she allowed the contractors to seize the samples. She comments:
It just doesn't seem right that you can be forced off the road when you're not doing anything wrong. I gestured to the guy in front that I just wanted to go straight, but [the officer] wouldn't let me and forced me into a parking spot.
They were asking for cheek swabs. They would give $10 for that. Also, if you let them take your blood, they would pay you $50 for that. I finally did the Breathalyzer test just because I thought that would be the easiest way to leave.
She received no money and only consented to participate because she said she felt trapped. But it might have not mattered anyways, as you will soon discover.
II. Read the Small Print -- Drivers Who Said no Were Tested Anyways
FWPD admitted that some drivers might have been inadvertently confused by the program and not realized that any of the samples -- including the breathalyzer sample -- were voluntary. FWPD spokesperson Sgt. Kelly Peel comments:
We are reviewing the actions of all police personnel involved to ensure that FWPD policies and procedures were followed. We apologize if any of our drivers and citizens were offended or inconvenienced by the NHTSA National Roadside Survey.
Passive sensors, such as the one pictured above, secretly tested the breath alcohol content of those who refused to give samples. [Image Source: DUI Justice]
But local attorney
says the search constituted an unconstitutional search and seizure. He comments:
You can't just be pulled over randomly or for no reason. [The FWPD] essentially [lied] to [motorists] when they say it's completely voluntary, because they're testing [them] at that moment.
His comment refers to a surprise twist in the case. Apparently on the consent form that officers gave "voluntary" participants fine print informed the driver that "passive alcohol sensor readings before the consent process has been completed."
It's unclear whether drivers could ask for that data to be deleted if they didn't want it to be collected, but what is clear is that most drivers did not notice the fine print or were unable to read it. As a result what the FWPD claimed was a "voluntary" scientific study became what appears to be an involuntary search of citizens who were breaking no law.
III. Alabama Attorney General is "Shocked" by Similar Program in His State
Similar searchers were conducted in Alabama's St. Clair and Bibb Counties in June. At the time Alabama's governor,
(R) expressed shock and outrage at the program, which he said he was unaware of:
I am instructing my Secretary of Law Enforcement, Spencer Collier, to investigate this issue. Like many people, I have questions about how and why these surveys were carried out along Alabama's roads. We need to find out from the federal government exactly what is being done with the information that was collected. We'll do everything we can to get to the bottom of the issue and make sure that the rights of our citizens are protected.
Alabama's Attorney General Luther Strange remarked:
I learned about this from news reports. I am shocked. This is very troubling and I intend to get to the bottom of it.
The Texas and Alabama tests involved police roadblocks similar to "sobriety checkpoints".
[Image Source: AP]
A NHTSA spokesman, Jose Ucles, revealed that the study was being funded by the Obama administration, via the White House's
National Office of Drug Control Policy
, and is being carried out by
The Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation
(PIRE) -- a federal research organization with offices across the country. He states to the blog
Participation is voluntary. All data is anonymous.
If you're doing roadblocks and asking people to stop, you have to have the deputies there to make sure everything is safe. It's not about detaining anybody, because the survey is voluntary and anonymous. It's about making sure the traffic is safe in that area.
The "study" on American drivers was funded and backed by the Obama administration. The Bush administration authorized a similar study in 2007, although it did not allow passive scanning of those who refused to be tested. [Image Source: AFP]
While some may disagree with that conclusion he does raise an interesting point, noting that similar surveys were conducted in 1973, 1986, 1996, and 2007 -- although only two of those surveys were used to evaluate drug use. The 2007 survey obtained 7,700 saliva samples and 3,300 blood samples. Of those sampled 12.4%
had alcohol in their systems
, while about 16% were found to have marijuana, cocaine or over-the-counter or prescription drug metabolites.
IV. Latest NHTSA Survey is the First to Involuntarily Seize Samples
However, one key difference between past surveys -- including those who used blood tests to determine drugs -- is the use of
automatic collection from passive sensors
. Some privacy advocates say that new tactic takes the past surveys from the realm of being questionable from a privacy perspective into a new era of flagrant abuse.
Susan Watson, executive director of the Alabama chapter of the
American Civil Liberties Union
called the detention and sampling of drivers an "abuse of power",
How voluntary is it when you have a police officer in uniform flagging you down? Are you going to stop? Yes, you're going to stop.
The ACLU and other civil rights agencies are considering suing the federal government to try to shut down or limit the collection program.
The ACLU may sue to stop the supposedly "anonymous" collection of DNA and blood chemistry.
[Image Source: Getty Images]
Meanwhile the feds defiantly charge on. They say they're well on their way to their goal of collecting samples from 8,000 drivers. They say the effort follows "a highly scientific protocol and complex statistical design in order to accurately reflect the problem nationwide."
The 2007 survey, they point out, was used as the basis for the NHTSA recommendation that
the legal blood alcohol limit be lowered from 0.08 to 0.05
percent. The NHTSA asserts that by generating statistics to justify arresting more drivers who might be mildly impaired, it can protect Americans from themselves.
NBC News 
[2; WGAL affiliate, AL]
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