One cities high tech approach to fighting DWI….can Austin be too far behind?

Police in Fresno, California are throwing up roadblocks, conducting stakeouts and using night-vision goggles, satellite tracking devices and video cameras in an extraordinary crackdown aimed not at terrorists or drug lords, but at drunken drivers.

The muscular tactics have made Fresno one of the toughest cities in America for those who dare to get behind the wheel after drinking.

“This is a chronic problem and we’re trying to attack it from all different angles,” said Detective Mark Van Wyhe.

While police say the four-year-old crackdown has yielded a dramatic drop in deadly car accidents, bars and restaurants complain it is hurting business and putting a damper on Fresno’s nightlife. And defense attorneys and civil liberties advocates warn that the city of 461,000 has gone too far.

“The enforcement is so tight here and it’s worth so much money to them that it clouds the judgment of the arresting officers,” said Kendall Simsarian, a Fresno defense attorney who works on driving-under-the-influence cases. “It takes less and less of a reason to get pulled over.”

Among other things, Fresno police are putting undercover officers near bars to watch for drinkers stumbling to their cars. They are setting up multiple drunken-driving checkpoints, sometimes even on weeknights. And they are surreptitiously planting Global Positioning System devices on the cars of convicted drunken drivers to monitor whether they are going to bars or liquor stores in violation of their probation or parole.

The number of DUI arrests has risen steadily from 2,169 in 2002 to a predicted 3,000 this year, police said.

Officers are using night-vision goggles and cameras to keep track of about 150 people who have been convicted of serious DUI offenses. The terms of their parole or probation often allow officers to search their homes at any time for evidence they have been drinking, and they can be re-arrested should police find alcohol there, no matter who bought it.

As for the covert planting of GPS devices, authorities say the practice is permissible under the terms of the offenders’ probation or parole. But the American Civil Liberties Union finds it troubling.

“The devices don’t just tell police where someone is going. They create a permanent, uploadable record of exactly what the person has been doing and for how long,” said Michael Risher, an attorney with the ACLU in San Francisco. “For the police department to be saying that everyone who has this type of conviction needs this type of loss of privacy doesn’t seem warranted.”

Some residents say the program has made them think twice before going out for a beer.

Bob Pierce, owner of a Fresno bar and restaurant, said sales have fallen by 25 percent since his businesses were targeted in the stakeouts.

“People are afraid to go out and have dinner and cocktails,” he said. “They’re leaving early or not coming at all.”

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