July 13 2011 10:37 AM

Young entrepreneur to launch DUI-checkpoint alert system

Sennett Devermont sees himself as a text-messaging activist taking on DUI checkpoints.
Photo by Dave Maass
    As he came to a stop at the DUI checkpoint at First Avenue and Beech Street, 23-year-old Sennett Devermont turned his iPhone's video camera on and slipped it into the passenger door pocket of his SUV. Devermont told the San Diego Police Department officer who came to his window that he preferred not to answer questions. He was asked to exit the car, and then he was escorted away.

    The camera captured another officer entering his car and rifling through his wallet, then putting it back. Devermont believes the search may have been unconstitutional, while SDPD spokesperson Lt. Andra Brown says officers are allowed to search for driver's licenses during legal traffic stops. Devermont says he was detained and harassed for 30 to 40 minutes as he refused to take a field sobriety test.

    “My brother's a DUI attorney, and my dad's an attorney, and they basically told me, even if you are sober, to refuse all those tests,” Devermont tells CityBeat. “Don't do anything subjective.”

    He describes aggressive officers playing good cop / bad cop and at one point being handcuffed and paraded on the street. Eventually, he was released after passing a breath test, twice.

    “It's hard to explain, but, literally, I felt as if I was a woman walking Downtown and men were whistling at me,” he says.

    Devermont, a San Diego State University graduate, uses the experience to explain why his new business venture—MrCheck point.com—isn't about helping drunken drivers escape capture, but to help sober citizens escape harassment. Launching this week, Mr. Checkpoint is a 25-state text-messaging service that will alert subscribers to any DUI checkpoints within a 30-mile radius of a fixed address.

    One would think there'd be an app for that. And there was—until Apple and Research in Motion, the company behind the Blackberry, each decided to ban DUI checkpoint apps this year. With text messaging, Devermont says he can offer users a similar service. It's priced at $9.99 per month, with a $5 discount to users who sign a pledge not to drink and drive.

    “Police officers from across the country have voiced concern about these products, with one police captain saying, ‘If people are going to use those, what other purpose are they going to use them for except to drink and drive?'” four Democratic U.S. senators, led by Senate President Harry Reid, wrote in a letter to three major smart-phone manufacturers in March.

    Devermont says that sober drivers have good reason to want to avoid checkpoints, citing a recent 10News report that a large majority of cars impounded at San Diego County checkpoints are for offenses unrelated to drunkdriving. Municipalities, the station reported, benefit financially from impounding cars through contracts with towing companies.

    Reviewing Devermont's video, David Blair-Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, says the search of his wallet may have been illegal, since Devermont had already provided the police with his ID. Beyond that, the ACLU also believes these checkpoints are violations of civil rights, although courts have upheld them as constitutional.

    “In principle, we oppose checkpoints,” Blair-Loy says. “In our view, the state and federal constitutions should prohibit police from stopping individuals without any reason to believe those individuals have done anything wrong.”

    Write to davem@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com


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