We take a look back at Rolling Thunder and its lingering effects on Augusta…
That’s how many critics of Operation Thunder describe the community’s feelings about this year’s increase in police checkpoints by the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office and the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.
But those in support of the road checks simply argue Operation Thunder is saving lives by using a strong law enforcement presence to crack down on careless motorists who are endangering the county’s roadways.
Regardless of which side of the argument most Augustans fall, as soon as the checkpoints go up, citizens are keenly aware of them.
There are even a number of websites and Facebook pages, such as Operation Rolling Thunder Spotline, which was launched in January and already has more than 7,000 “likes,” that are dedicated to informing residents about the location of the checkpoints around town when they occur.
While a handful of jurisdictions across the country have said such pages interfere with law enforcement’s ability to conduct an effective checkpoint and therefore the creators of the websites or Facebook pages could potentially face charges, Richmond County Sheriff’s Lt. Lewis Blanchard said such sites actually play a role in the county’s “awareness campaign.”
“We really don’t care about the social media sites and the websites that say, ‘Hey, Thunder is in town,’” Blanchard said. “It’s actually part of our awareness campaign and makes people think and make better decisions.”
And that is what Operation Thunder is all about, Blanchard insists.
“Thunder was started in Georgia in 2007, through the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, and what they do is identify counties that are having a lot of fatalities and a lot of accidents or crashes with injuries,” Blanchard said. “And they basically offer to come in and deploy additional manpower at no additional expense to the county to help solve the problem and drive down the number of deaths and crashes in general.”
After reviewing the number of fatalities on Richmond County roadways over the past few years, Blanchard said it was obvious to Sheriff Richard Roundtree that any additional help would be greatly appreciated.
“Richmond County’s numbers have been very high. I believe it was 44 that we had last year in terms of deaths,” Blanchard said. “The sheriff’s goal was to do whatever needed to be done within the law and within our budget to reduce those numbers. And there was no additional funding for anything this year because you are assigned the budget of the previous administration, so when the state offered to come and help us in that area, you have to take whatever help you can get.”
“We are not going to go out there and violate people’s rights,” Richmond County Sheriff’s Lt. Lewis Blanchard said. “We know the laws for road checks and we go above and beyond them.”
The GOHS offered its Thunder Taskforce, which uses officers certified as field sobriety or drug recognition experts, for a 90-day operation which began February 14 of this year.
Although the three-month crackdown ended this summer, Blanchard explained that the GOHS has offered random follow-up operations throughout the remainder of the year, such as the one that occurred during the first weekend in November.
That particular weekend, officers made 47 arrests on charges of driving under the influence and discovered 10 cases involving open container violations, 52 child-seat violations and eight misdemeanor drug cases.
Blanchard admits the sheriff’s office was discouraged to find such a high number of DUIs and child-seat violations less than six months after the initial 90-day campaign.
“It’s kind of been a double-edged sword,” Blanchard said. “On one hand, Operation Thunder has been effective because we have drastically reduced the number of fatalities and the number of crashes with injuries. Just with the crashes with injuries, I think we are at 1,300 less crashes than last year. That’s huge.”
So, in that regard, Blanchard believes Operation Thunder has been a success in Richmond County.
“But, on the other hand, we are still having a lot of fatalities, but they are more towards pedestrians incidents,” he said. “We’ve had more pedestrian incidents this year than we did last year, so that’s disappointing.”
He was also hoping to see a huge decline in DUI arrests during that first weekend in November, but, unfortunately, that was not the case, he said.
“On the weekends, when we first started Thunder, we were getting around 40 or 30-plus DUIs,” Blanchard. “In the middle of Thunder, we were getting about 20 DUIs. Towards the end of Thunder, we were getting 10 a night. That meant our message was getting out. But, when they came back in November, we are back up to 30. So that is not the desired result that we want or expect.”
“The road checks are obviously 100 percent legal,” Richmond County Sheriff’s Lt. Lewis Blanchard said. “There are certain people who believe it is an infringement upon their rights. We are certainly understanding of that and are aware of that; therefore, we try to make sure that we are doing everything as perfectly as possible and being as polite as possible.”
Earlier this year, CNET News, a property of CBS Interactive that focuses on the latest in tech and consumer electronics, reported that social media such as Facebook and Twitter were forcing law enforcement agencies around the country to rethink police checkpoints and their effectiveness.
“Police are sometimes accused of linear thinking, especially when it comes to DUI checkpoints,” CNET News wrote in an April 14 article. “They set them up on Friday and Saturday nights. They redouble their efforts on New Year’s Eve. Perhaps the finest example was one police force in the wine country of Northern California that decided to put a DUI checkpoint at the bottom of a winery’s driveway. Yes, on barrel-tasting day.”
However, CNET News discovered that because more and more people around the country are using social media to warn people about checkpoints, law enforcement agencies are having to completely change their tactics.
“Big checkpoints may be on the way out,” CNET News reported. “They’re too obvious, take too long to set up and word travels too quickly, as they’re so often located on busy roads — on the shooting-fish-in-barrel principle.”
Instead, several police forces across the country have begun concentrating on roads less traveled and setting up checkpoints in the middle of week, according to the CNET News article.
There are definitely pluses and minuses to checkpoints, Blanchard said.
“I’m not going to sit here and definitively say, ‘A road check is the No. 1 way to go,’” Blanchard said. “But I certainly think it is an effective tool, just as deployment of personnel is an effective tool and like education is an effective tool. I think you have to do the different things without going overboard on any of them.”
While Richmond County has always had the occasional checkpoint, Operation Thunder gave the sheriff’s office the opportunity to explore the more frequent use of them and their impact on traffic accidents, Blanchard said.
“We had some clear issues in Richmond County with traffic accidents and we needed to have a big impact,” Blanchard said. “And from there, we need to sustain the fact that we are continuing to lower crashes and continuing to lower DUIs and we are doing so within the confines of the law and making sure that everybody’s rights are respected.”
One of the reasons creators of such websites or Facebook pages like Operation Rolling Thunder Spotline say they began their sites is because they want to make sure the public’s rights are not violated.
On Operation Rolling Thunder Spotline’s Facebook page, it says the intent is to simply share information about the checkpoints.
“We are merely a group of friends, sharing information to help one another move about freely in a free society without being confronted by police in any way that we believe to be unfair, unjustified or unconstitutional,” the Facebook site states.
When contacted by the Metro Spirit, the creator of Operation Rolling Thunder Spotline’s Facebook page did not want to identified. However, the creators did want the purpose of their page to be made clear.
“We promote safe and sober driving,” the page’s creator stated. “Nobody in their right mind would think drunk, buzzed, aggressive or any other unsafe driving on our roads is acceptable.”
However, this particular page is about “liberty,” he said.
“We do not have a problem with the law,” the Facbeook page creator stated. “Our problem is with the methods being used to enforce the law. We believe detaining and often searching law-abiding citizens at checkpoints is no different, fundamentally, than surrounding a neighborhood, detaining all residents, demanding identification and searching homes of people they think are ‘suspicious.’”
Operation Thunder is actually hurting Augusta, he said.
“Honest, law-abiding people are staying home,” he said. “Businesses, especially downtown, are suffering. Checkpoints are intimidating and roadside searches are humiliating.”
Any claims of Operation Thunder checkpoints being “unconstitutional” is simply not accurate, Blanchard said, and such misinformation is the biggest problem he sees with social media following the checkpoints.
“The road checks are obviously 100 percent legal,” Blanchard insisted. “There are certain people who believe it is an infringement upon their rights. We are certainly understanding of that and are aware of that; therefore, we try to make sure that we are doing everything as perfectly as possible and being as polite as possible.
“But at the same time, we are going to use all the tools in the toolbox that are given to us by the court system to enforce the law. That’s really our job.”
The danger of posting something on Facebook or Twitter that is inaccurate is mainly those comments could cause someone at a checkpoint to behave inappropriately in front of law enforcement and that person could wind up being arrested, Blanchard said.
“Honest, law-abiding people are staying home,” said the creator of Operation Rolling Thunder Spotline’s Facebook page. “Businesses, especially downtown, are suffering. Checkpoints are intimidating and roadside searches are humiliating.”
“The part that is bothersome is that sometimes there is information that is placed on sites that is completely inaccurate,” Blanchard said. “And it could potentially get somebody arrested or in trouble if they are thinking things like, ‘No. I don’t have to roll down my window for this police officer.’ Or, ‘I can roll it down a quarter of an inch.’ That’s not the case. The laws are very clear on that.”
According to Todd Hayes, the traffic safety resource prosecutor for the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia, both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of Georgia have upheld the constitutionality of checkpoints.
In fact, police officers are allowed to order any occupants out of a vehicle at a traffic stop without any additional reason, Hayes wrote in statement provided to the Metro Spirit.
“The Supreme Court of the United States ‘recognized the inordinate risk confronting an officer as he approaches a person seated in an automobile’ during a routine traffic stop in the case of Pennsylvania v. Mimms,” Hayes wrote. “That case cited a study (Bristow, ‘Police Officer Shootings — A Tactical Evaluation,’) which concluded that approximately 30 percent of police shootings occurred when a police officer approached a suspect seated in an automobile.
“Therefore, the Court concluded that an officer may order someone stopped for a traffic violation to exit the vehicle. This is true regardless of whether the weather is unpleasant or that the officer does not have a clear reason for asking you to get out. When the officer asks you to ‘please step out of your car,’ you have to do it.”
Hayes also stated that a police officer can order you to roll down your car windows.
“If an officer can order you from your vehicle for officer safety without violating your rights, then the simple request of rolling down your windows is also reasonable and far less intrusive,” he stated. “However, if you are unable to roll your windows down for some reason (i.e., they are broken or malfunctioning), simply explain this to the officer and be prepared to comply with his legal request for you to exit the vehicle should he or she ask.”
“We really don’t care about the social media sites and the websites that say, ‘Hey, Thunder is in town,’” Richmond County Sheriff’s Lt. Lewis Blanchard said. “It’s actually part of our awareness campaign and makes people think and make better decisions.”
A person can also be pulled over for attempting to avoid a road check, Hayes wrote.
“The Georgia Court of Appeals recently reaffirmed its long-standing rule that ‘abnormal or unusual actions taken to avoid a roadblock may give an officer a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity even when the evasive action is not illegal,’” Hayes stated. “Therefore, under Georgia law, a driver who takes evasive measures to avoid a roadblock provides law enforcement officers with reasonable articulable suspicion to believe that they are engaged in criminal activity.”
If someone refuses to show their license or doesn’t step out of their car when asked by an officer, he or she can be arrested, Hayes stated.
“A person is guilty of obstructing a law enforcement officer… if the person willfully hinders, delays, or obstructs any law enforcement officer in the discharge of his or her official duties,” he wrote. “Thus, continued refusal to obey lawful commands from an officer may result in your arrest for misdemeanor obstruction. In the event that your disobedience escalates to the point where you either threaten or perform a violent act upon the officer, the violation becomes a felony punishable by one to five years in prison.”
Blanchard insists that the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office makes sure that it is following the letter of the law when it sets up a road check.
For example, a “pre-approval supervisor form” is completed prior to the establishment of a checkpoint, the locations are pre-determined based on needs of the community and traffic statistics, signs stating “Police Road Check” are deployed within the area and patrol cars are parked and visible from all approach directions, he said.
“We are not going to go out there and violate people’s rights,” Blanchard said. “We know the laws for road checks and we go above and beyond them.”
In general, a driver’s encounter with an officer at a checkpoint will take less than two minutes, Blanchard said.
“It literally is probably 90 seconds or less if you come up to a road check and hand over your driver’s license,” he said. “There are very few words. If the deputy doesn’t observe or detect the odor of anything that would cause or arouse suspicion, you are quickly on your way.”
For the most part, Augustans have been extremely cooperative with the deputies at the checkpoints, Blanchard said.
“We’ve had two incidents of negativity, total,” he said. “And I’ve been at every single road check.”
One particular gentlemen appears to want to test Operation Thunder to see if the officers are checking each and every car that goes through the checkpoint, Blanchard said.
“If you start a road check, you have to check every car that comes through there except emergency vehicles,” he said. “And this one individual, if he wants to keep driving through our road check, just turning around and driving through our road check, then we have to stop him every single time and we have to get his driver’s license every single time.
“Because if you don’t, you are allowing somebody to pass through and, therefore, it could potentially be ruled unconstitutional because it is selective enforcement. So for us, the only thing that bothers us about some of the social media sites is that some people do put out some misinformation.”
But more and more of these sites are popping up all around the country and many professional web development companies are now getting involved.
In September, a Kansas couple named Jennifer and David Dorsett started a Facebook page called Wichita DUI Checkpoints. The married couple own a web development company called GoViral and they created the Facebook page to help raise public awareness of checkpoints.
“We started this page to raise awareness of the traps law enforcement create for people at unknown locations,” Jennifer Dorsett said. “Everyone has found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. We use social media to give our friends and followers a heads-up of the location.”
For the Dorsetts, it is not about helping people avoid DUIs.
“Some people have thought that we started it to tell the drunk drivers where to ‘not go.’ That is untrue,” Jennifer Dorsett said. “We post the location and date for those who do not want to go through the anxiety of dealing with law enforcement. We do not believe in drunk driving and are not condoning it whatsoever.”
“It is a public service,” she said. “We feel this could save many lives and bank accounts.”
But for the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, Blanchard insists these checkpoints are not about the money.
“The sheriff was showing us the other day, if somebody says it’s about fines, it’s just not true, “ he said. “The sheriff’s office has about a $58 million budget. And last year, what was brought in on traffic citations, which can only be spent on the jail and jail personnel, was less than $150,000. And this year, it is going to be less than $150,000. So, does it really look like to anybody that even if we went out and wrote every ticket in the world that the sheriff’s office is benefiting from it? It’s $150,000 of a $58 million budget.”
Also, some critics have pointed out that $2 of every base fine paid by traffic violators goes to the Sheriffs’ Retirement Fund of Georgia. But Blanchard says very few officers in Richmond County benefit from that fund.
“What people have to understand is, that is a state retirement fund that officer in any department in the state can buy into if they want to,” Blanchard said. “But probably less than 10 percent of the officers in this agency do so because it takes more money out of their paycheck and most of them cannot afford for any more money to come out of their check.”
As the holiday season approaches, Blanchard says the public should expect more checkpoints established in Richmond County to ensure that the roadways are safe. And while he realizes that some people have strong objections to the checkpoints, he insists Operation Thunder was established to help prevent accidents on Augusta’s roadways.
“Anytime you deal with the enforcement of traffic, you are going to run into a lot of individuals who are otherwise law-abiding citizens,” Blanchard said. “Many who are productive members of society who work and pay taxes and, therefore, they think you should be just out dealing with the ‘real criminals.’ Well, they have to understand, those are crimes, those are laws and we are sworn to uphold them.
“And this is not a victimless crime. For the 44 people and their friends and family who are dealing with somebody who was killed last year on our roadways, that is not a victimless crime.”