Friday night's DUI/license checkpoint on Fourth Street in front of the Safeway shopping center in Santa Rosa. Click to enlarge. Road Warrior photo

The first indication of Friday night’s DUI/license checkpoint in Santa Rosa were the half dozen or so protesters holding reflective signs saying “RETEN” in Spanish for checkpoint.

But before drivers knew it, they were being funneled amid flashing police lights into one lane on eastbound Fourth Street in front of the Safeway shopping center.

A line of police officers from various local cities greeted them, checking each of the 1,550 drivers stopped for signs of impairment from alcohol or drugs and for valid licenses. Those suspected of DUI or license violations were directed off the road into a parking lot for further investigation.

Friday night’s checkpoint was part of a two-week, anti-DUI crackdown being carried out the Sonoma County’s Avoid the 13 task force that goes through Labor Day.

The checkpoint began around 6 p.m. and at about 8:30 officers arrested their first DUI suspect, a 57-year-old Santa Rosa man. He failed a preliminary alcohol test and refused to take a chemical test, thus automatically causing his license to be suspended for one year by the DMV. About an hour later, a second man, a 30-year-old from New York, became the second and last DUI arrest of the night. Both were determined to have blood alcohol levels of more than twice the legal limit.

The checkpoints are controversial. For some, they don’t like the idea of being stopped by police, saying it’s unconstitutional, although the courts have ruled them legal. Organizers of the sign protests have said they don’t object to the DUI crackdown but to the arrests of unlicensed drivers, many who are illegal immigrants prohibited from having driver’s licenses and often wind up having their cars impounded.

Petaluma Police Sgt. Ken Savano, coordinator of the Avoid the 13 campaign, says the checkpoints serve more as an educational tool to publicize the dangers of drunken driving than actually netting many DUI suspects. He’s hoping sober drivers will see the checkpoints and will be scared about drinking and driving.

He said people take it for granted that they can drive down local roads and don’t realize that a crash can happen in a second. And when you add alcohol to the mix, it increases the risk, he said.

Friday’s checkpoint, which ended at midnight, followed one Thursday on Stony Point Road near West Ninth Street in Santa Rosa where three drivers were arrested on suspicion of DUI. Fifteen drivers were arrested for being unlicensed, three for suspended licenses and one on a warrant.

As of after Friday night’s checkpoint, the Avoid the 13 campaign reported it had arrested a total of 13 people at four checkpoints for DUI and 121 others for DUI by officers on roving patrols during the current crackdown. In addition, five people were arrested for violating their DUI probations and 24 were arrested on DUI warrants.

Most of the arrests at the checkpoints have been for driving without a license. On Friday night, six were arrested for without a license, four for suspended licenses and one for possession of illegal drugs.