When police head out in force this New Year’s Eve, they will have a headache on top of drunk drivers to worry about: citizens reporting the locations of their alcohol spot checks online.
On major holidays, Twitter lights up with a flurry of tips on avoiding breathalyzer-wielding officers. In the past month alone, users in several Canadian cities have set up accounts for the sole purpose of aggregating these tweets.
Those who do it argue they are simply helping sober drivers avoid traffic tie-ups. Police say such actions could cost people their lives. They have little legal recourse, however, prompting one web-savvy Toronto cop to take to Twitter in an effort to shame people out of thwarting his fellow officers.
Charging a person with obstruction of justice requires proving that he or she helped someone evade police while committing a crime. Broadcasting the location of check stops to a wide number of people – most of whom are likely doing nothing wrong – would not fit this definition.
“Once you think about making it illegal, you get into all sorts of problems. If tweeting it is illegal, then what if you text it to someone? What if you text it to five people?” said lawyer Gil Zvulony, who specializes in Internet law.
Without being able to use the criminal code, Toronto traffic officer Sergeant Tim Burrows said the weapon of choice is social media itself.
“I know people want to help each other out, but the consequences can be serious,” he said. “One of our best Internet strategies is to say ‘hi’ to someone who’s doing that and say: ‘Do you understand the complete ramifications of what you’re doing?’ ”
On Christmas Eve, for instance, people across the Greater Toronto Area blew the cover of Ontario’s Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere checkpoints repeatedly. “Spotted: #RIDE program on the southbound 400 ramp at Major Mackenzie! #avoidifhammered,” wrote one young man.
So, Sgt. Burrows dashed off a blunt rejoinder: “If you tweet a #RIDE location tonight, make sure you also apologize tomorrow to any families who lose a loved one to a drunk driver.”
Other Twitter users joined in, labelling the tipsters “dirtbags,” “losers” and “drunk driving fans.”
The campaign had its intended effect on some, who quickly deleted their tweets and apologized. Others defended their actions, saying they were aimed at law-abiding citizens.
“If [drivers drink]to the point they’re dangerous, then twitter would be an afterthought,” wrote the person behind a Calgary feed.
The chief executive officer of PhantomALERT, which makes a smartphone app advertising the locations of speed traps and alcohol checkpoints, argues that reminding people of police activity encourages drivers to obey the law.
“The idea is to raise awareness, to deter people from drinking and driving,” said Joe Scott, adding that his company gleans much of its information from police websites and press releases.
Sgt. Burrows draws a distinction between warning people that police will be blitzing a given area and listing the exact spot where officers are set up. He said the first technique, which police themselves use, discourages people from getting behind the wheel after having a few, while the second helps drunk drivers dodge law enforcement.
Police have several techniques at their disposal to outmanoeuvre them, such as changing the locations of checkpoints frequently. On occasion, they also publicize specific RIDE spots, then set up on neighbouring streets to trick people trying to evade them. Such strategic thinking may be paying off: While Toronto police have fielded fewer officers this year, they have actually arrested more drunk drivers.
And despite the irritations of Twitter, they say it has actually helped them more than it’s hurt.
“Social media has raised the awareness of crime,” Sgt. Burrows said. “It has been a great thing for us to reach out to people and for them to reach back.”