January 18, 2011

Should Facebook Be Used To Fight Drunk Driving?

A councilman in Huntington Beach, California is trying to use Facebook as public humiliation for drivers who drive drunk.

A councilman in the city of the top ranked state for alcohol-related traffic fatalities wants police to begin posting the mug shots of everyone who is arrested more than once for driving under the influence.

"If it takes shaming people to save lives, I am willing to do it," Devin Dwyer, the councilman behind the proposal, told the Associated Press (AP). "I'm hoping it prevents others from getting behind the wheel and getting inebriated."

Dwyer initially wanted the police department to post photos on Facebook of everyone arrested for DUI in the town.  He has watered down his proposal in hopes of winning support from the rest of the seven-member council, which is set to vote on the issue Tuesday.

Huntington Beach is ranked top out of 56 California cities of similar size for the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities. 

Drunk driving laws are aggressively enforced in the town, and there were 1,687 DUI arrests in 2009.

"There is a saying: Come to Huntington Beach on vacation, leave on probation," attorney Randall Bertz, who specializes in DUI cases told AP's Thomas Watkins.

Bertz, a former police officer who had been defending cases like this for 23 years, said uploading DUI suspects' photos onto Facebook violated their right to privacy and would likely not be a deterrent to habitual drunken drivers.

"It will have a negative impact on relations with the community, the police department and city officials," he said. "What's next, will they have drunk drivers walk around with sandwich boards? Will it be public flogging?"

The Huntington Beach police department does not support Dwyer's proposal.  Police spokesman Lt. Russell Reinhart said that since launching its Facebook page in November, officers have found it to be a valuable way of getting information to the public and soliciting tips on tough cases.

Reinhart fears Facebook fans could be turned off by the routine public shaming of all repeat DUI offenders.

"We see no value in doing that," he told AP's Watkins. "Law enforcement is not about public shaming."

Dwyer said he has received wide support from residents for his proposal.  He decided to push his plan forward after the local newspaper had a change in editorial policy and ceased publishing arrest logs.

Connie Boardman, a Huntington Beach councilwoman who opposes Dwyer's idea, told AP that posting the photos would have little effect on behavior.

"People who habitually drink and drive are alcoholics and are not going to be shamed by this," she said. "But their parents and their spouses would be mortified."

She also said that children might be bullied if peers see their parents on a Facebook wall of shame.

"That is going to result in tremendous humiliation for a kid who has no hope of controlling his parent's behavior," she said.

Other police departments have tried putting up a rogue gallery of DUI arrestees, though some of these attempts have been short lived.

The 75-officer police force of Evesham Township, New Jersey maintains an active Facebook page and initially posted every DUI arrest mug shot.  The county prosecutor told police to stop the practice within four months because it was unclear whether it was allowed under rules about what information police can release.

"It wasn't our intention to shame people," police Chief Mike Barth said. "But it did cause a stir."

The Honolulu police department abruptly stopped posting DUI mug shots on its website in March.  There was no reason given why the project was stopped.

Many police agencies have set up Facebook accounts where they routinely disseminate suspect photographs.

The Oconee County sheriff's office in Georgia maintains a Facebook page that includes a photograph of a suspected child molester.

Chief Deputy Lee Weems said that only photos of people who are convicted are posted on Facebook.

Clare Pastore, a civil rights and poverty law professor at the University of Southern California, told AP that she was troubled by the idea of publicizing photos of a suspect before they have been convicted.

"There's a little bit of a presumption of innocence problem," she said. "It's not really appropriate to shame someone before they are found guilty."