Off Duty Alabama Cops Collected DNA And Blood Samples At Roadblocks

In a rather bizarre incident, police in two Alabama counties are being questions over roadblocks they set up over the weekend at which they collected DNA and blood samples from passing motorists:

PELL CITY, Alabama — St. Clair and Bibb county authorities are confirming there were roadblocks at several locations in their counties Friday and Saturday asking for blood and DNA samples. However, the samples were voluntary and motorists were paid for them as part of a study, they said.

According to Lt. Freddie Turrentine of the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department, it isn’t the first time such roadblocks have occurred in the area.

“They were here in 2007,” said Turrentine, the supervisor in charge of the roadblocks, which took place in several locations in St. Clair County Friday night, early Saturday morning and Saturday night and early Sunday morning. “It’s just with social media and Facebook now, word of it has just exploded.”

Turrentine said the roadblocks were part of a study conducted by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, working with the National Highway Safety Administration. St. Clair County was asked to participate by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs because it had worked with the group six years ago.

Sheriff Keith Hannah in Bibb County said they too had previously participated in the study.

Here’s how the roadblocks worked:

Off-duty St. Clair County deputies stopped cars at random at road block areas. The road blocks were marked with signs stating it was a paid survey. Cars stopped were asked for voluntary cooperation. Drivers were offered $10 for a mouth swab, and $50 for a blood test. If they refused, they were free to drive away.

Road blocks took place Friday at the New London Fire Department, Alabama 34 in Pell City near the old Dan’s Car Wash, U.S. 231 at Alabama 144, at White’s Chapel Parkway and Moody Crossroads in Moody. In Bibb County, the road blocks took place in five areas in the county on Friday night through early Sunday morning.

If drivers participated, they were directed to

an area where someone from the group carrying out the study took the samples, he said.

“It was completely voluntary,” Turrentine said, saying reports that people were detained if they did not cooperate were untrue. “If they didn’t want to take part, they could drive off.”

The samples were anonymous, he said

As it turns out, the survey was being conducted on behalf of an agency of the Federal Government:

According to Ucles, the Office of Drug Control Policy is contributing funding and support for the study, which is going on in 60 sites around the nation. The Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation is conducting the tests through this fall. St. Clair and Bibb county officials said this would be the only time the road blocks are conducted this year.

(…)

The samples, Ucles said, were used to measure whether drivers had the presence of over-the-counter, prescription and illegal drugs in their systems, or alcohol and the driver’s individual blood alcohol concentration.

Ucles said there were four previous national roadside surveys conducted in 1973, 1986, 1996 and 2007, but this is only the second time a survey has obtained data on drug use by drivers.

The survey used deputies to stop traffic, he said, for traffic safety.

“If you’re doing roadblocks and asking people to stop, you have to have the deputies there to make sure everything is safe,” he said. “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.”

I would have two questions about  these surveys. First, were the off duty officers doing the random stops in uniform and using their official vehicles at the time of the stops? Second, were participants made aware of the fact that the survey in question was being conducted on behalf of a government agency? As for the survey itself, I suppose I understand the need to collect data such as this, but I do find the manner in which the survey was conducted to be, well, just darned odd to say that least.

H/T Caroline May

FILED UNDER: General
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Matt Bernius says:

    First, were the off duty officers doing the random stops in uniform and using their official vehicles at the time of the stops?

    This is the critical question. If they were using uniforms and official cars, then its a HUGE issue.

  2. JKB says:

    Oh, this has lots of questions.

    First, was the “voluntary” nature disclosed before the stop, i.e, by posting a sign?

    Did the deputies do the stops or did a surveyor do the interaction with the driver? That is was the deputy in a position to visually inspect for violations of the law.

    Was the nature of the tests disclosed and the fact that they were searching for what could be illegal activity revealed for informed consent?

    Will the DNA be retained for use in the new Alabama “daddy search” program to locate fathers of babies to underaged girls?

    BTW, by what right does a private research group stop traffic on a public road? Especially using the visual implication that the stops are government mandated?

  3. JKB says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    I can see a certain rationale in having an official vehicle and uniformed officer on site. It would reassure the public that the roadblock was not some criminal activity. That said, the officer should not interact with the drivers but simply be on-site with non-law enforcement doing all interactions.

  4. Franklin says:

    The word ‘roadblock’ set off sirens in my head (no pun intended), but on second thought it could be considered similarly to blocking off a road for a parade or race or something. But then, why were the officers off-duty? Don’t they need on-duty officers for traffic control? It is all a little strange.

  5. Sheese Doug. Are you some disgruntled Army private who doesn’t trust our elected officials or something? These off duty cops spent years earning our trust and should be allowed to determine when a search is reasonable, rather than letting every motorist be a de facto traffic court judge.

  6. Matt Bernius says:

    @JKB:

    I can see a certain rationale in having an official vehicle and uniformed officer on site. It would reassure the public that the roadblock was not some criminal activity.

    But that’s part of the coercion that you were concerned about above. Plus if the police department/municipality is not supporting (or aware) of this activity, then they are misrepresenting their source of authority.

    Just because I work at McDonalds and have the keys to the building, doesn’t mean that I can open it up after hours and use the facility to run my own “homemade” burger restaurant.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    I also wonder what they think they were doing. If whoever constructed the study thinks that’s a way of getting a random sample, I’d like to speak with them about it.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    “Drivers were offered $10 for a mouth swab, and $50 for a blood test. If they refused, they were free to drive away.” If this is true I’m having trouble seeing this as much of a deal.

    It’s pretty normal to hire off-duty cops to direct traffic. The mega-church up the road from me has half a dozen uniformed off-duty cops screwing up directing traffic every Sunday morning. And afternoon. And Saturday evening. And odd occasions during the week. I have no idea what the legalities are if one chose to ignore them, but hiring off duty cops to direct traffic in uniform is pretty normal practice. Several fast food places on busy streets around here do it for weekday lunches. I believe the local department schedules the cops and skims a percentage.

  9. Matt Bernius says:

    @Dave Schuler:
    Yeah, no way that should have made it through IRB.

  10. john says:

    illegal on so many levels i dont know where to begin…..

  11. JKB says:

    @Matt Bernius: But that’s part of the coercion that you were concerned about above.

    Which is why they need a sign boldly informing that participation is voluntary, past slowing down to be asked to participate.

    I don’t think they should be doing this at all. Even for some stupid government study, there is no rightful reason to stop a citizen from their travel.

    But if you are going to set up a roadblock, it should have real cops there to signal that this isn’t some threatening activity but the officers should not doing the actual stops. It is only slightly different from having a police officer sitting in his car at critical road work sites. The officers have not probable cause to stop the vehicles and therefore not right to peer into the vehicles while stopped.

    On the other hand, if they, law enforcement or not, said anything other than thank you after someone refused, any cajoling or attempt to persuade, then I’d say that’s a problem.

    But consider the risks, police on site or not. Someone approaches an unexpected roadblock. They say are intoxicated, their reaction might put people in danger as they try to avoid the situation. Or perhaps they are skittish criminals. Or perhaps they have a chip on their should for police interaction. All those situations, prompted by an unreasonable roadblock, vice an invitation to pull into a roadside survey area, are foreseeable consequences caused by this ill-considered action

  12. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Wouldn’t an “anonymous” DNA sample be kind of like an “anonymous” fingerprint card?

  13. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Regardless of how these encounters were conducted, this was an incredibly stupid thing to have done in the manner that they did it.

  14. willi says:

    Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. You get frackin’ NOTHING!

    No swab, no blood, no hair, no dandruff, no snot, no pi$$, no fecal,

    no breath, no pics, no recording.

    Am I under arrest? Then am I free to go? Thank you. ouY kcuF

  15. Neil Hudelson says:

    The samples, Ucles said, were used to measure whether drivers had the presence of over-the-counter, prescription and illegal drugs in their systems, or alcohol and the driver’s individual blood alcohol concentration.

    Call me crazy, but wouldn’t those on alcohol, prescription, or illegal drugs–when told this was voluntary–be the least likely to say “hell yes, sign me up!”

    I would think that the results are pretty skewed towards the sober, based on self selection.

    Shoddy work all around.

  16. gla says:

    Does anyone know if they were specifically targeting women? Only one person has spoken out about their experience and it was a woman of child-bearing age driving home with her daughter.
    One of the directors of the “Pacific Institute for Research…” is involved in studying Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. She and her associates recruit and screen women on alcohol use, and enroll some of them in intervention programs. Those who drink 8 or more drinks a week are then asked about their use of contraceptives and they are provided with birth control. The end result would be a decrease in unplanned pregnancies. I’d like to see a follow up to the results of these roadblocks, and who they were targeting.

  17. DNA Sample? says:

    @Neil Hudelson: But why a DNA sample? What does a DNA sample have to do with what they were trying to “measure”? Very strange.