On a cold Friday night in late October, the Kansas City police are looking for drunken drivers leaving Westport and downtown. The police have set up a sobriety checkpoint in the southbound lanes of Main Street just north of 41st Street, in front of the Community Blood Center. It's the perfect spot, located at the bottom of a dip in the road that shields the cop cars, orange cones and signs from sight. Drivers have little choice but to face police at the roadblock. The only kink in the plan is Michael Mikkelsen.
The curly-haired, 29-year-old activist stands two blocks north of the checkpoint, warning drivers to turn onto Westport Road to avoid the police.
Mikkelsen usually protests alone, but this night three protesters from the Occupy Kansas City encampment, where he's been living and helping organize, have tagged along
From the illuminated sidewalk at 1 a.m., Mikkelsen holds a 2-by-4-foot sign (repurposed from an anti-smoking-ban campaign) that reads, "Checkpoint Ahead." He and his companions shout at passing traffic to hang a quick right. One of the Mikkelsen supporters, in a neon-orange knit hat, hovers around the action using Mikkelsen's battered iPhone to broadcast the tiny protest on Ustream. A police cruiser idles nearby but doesn't interfere.
Several cars heed Mikkelsen's warning and turn off Main. A few shout thank you before altering their routes. The majority continue toward the police.
Checkpoint nights generally go the same way for Mikkelsen. Metro DUI sobriety stops run Fridays and Saturdays, usually between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., weather permitting. Mikkelsen gets on Twitter and waits until checkpoint time. When someone tweets the location of the night's sobriety stop, he goes out.
He doesn't want police to spot his car, so he parks a couple of blocks from the flashing lights. He puts at least one street between him and the checkpoint, giving drivers — sober and potentially drunken — an opportunity to avoid a run-in with police.
Although he brought backup this evening, Mikkelsen often stages one-man, one-sign protests. He's done this since the beginning of the year. It's a cause that he has more time for, thanks to a recently enacted ban on synthetic drugs.
"The government just put me out of business," says Mikkelsen, who was a sales representative for a Columbia, Missouri, synthetic-marijuana company called Pandora. He insists on calling Pandora "incense" and says he sold it to gas stations and head shops. But the ban, which went into effect August 28, killed the once-thriving industry.
"We think that it's unconstitutionally vague," Mikkelsen says of the law, which he hopes will be overturned, although one lawsuit challenging the law was thrown out this past summer by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
Until the courts resolve the legality of synthetic drugs, Mikkelsen protests sobriety stops for what he calls a violation of citizens' rights. He also does it because he believes that he was a victim of an overreaching police search at a checkpoint three years ago.
Mikkelsen admits that he was drinking and driving. He had a few drinks during an engagement party for his brother before getting behind the wheel and meeting up with a drinking buddy. They picked up caffeinated beer drinks (the details are fuzzy) and went for a drive.
He claims that he wasn't drunk when he pulled up to a DUI checkpoint. He hid their booze between his seat and the center console before an officer asked him to do a series of field sobriety tests, checking Mikkelsen's eyes and asking him to stand on one leg and walk and turn. He was also given a breathalyzer test and blew a .01, well below the .08 legal limit to drive.
However, Mikkelsen claims that officers wouldn't let him leave, even after determining that he wasn't legally drunk.
"They said somebody had to come pick me up," he says.
With his friend in no condition to drive, Mikkelsen had to call his parents for a ride home.
"To me, it wasn't really embarrassing," he says. "It was just ridiculous."
Mikkelsen's protests have led to a handful of confrontations with the police. While some police officers ask what he's doing and then ignore him, others have tried to silence him. He says he was once handcuffed for protesting a checkpoint. Another time, he was held on a Terry stop, in which officers can briefly detain a person thought to be committing a crime. He wasn't arrested either time.
A protest in June left Mikkelsen claiming that a police officer had violated his First Amendment rights. Mikkelsen filed a community complaint with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department alleging that an officer stole his "Checkpoint Ahead" sign.
It was just after 2 a.m., and Mikkelsen, positioned at Truman and McGee, was warning drivers of a checkpoint on Interstate 70. Mikkelsen maintains that an officer watched him for several minutes before she approached him. He says she told him, "No, you're not doing that," and took his sign.
"Don't touch my sign," Mikkelsen recalls telling the officer, who put the sign in the passenger seat of her police van and drove away.
"She didn't accuse me of anything," he says. "It didn't seem like she was doing any police activity. To me, it's just politically motivated theft."
Mikkelsen spent the rest of that night searching for his sign, an ordeal that he streamed live online. He drove from the checkpoint to several police stations before finally finding his sign sitting on a bench outside a police department gas station on Prospect.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri got involved after the sign-snatching incident. Chief Counsel and Legal Director Doug Bonney complained to the KCPD's attorney that the officer had violated Mikkelsen's free-speech rights.
The call worked. Mikkelsen says Kansas City police haven't hassled him since the ACLU's intervention.
"They leave me alone now," he says.
However, Mikkelsen was arrested in August, but not for his crusade against sobriety checkpoints. A woman in Columbia reported that Mikkelsen sexually assaulted her after a night of drinking.
Columbia police Public Information Officer Latisha Stroer says the woman told police that she and her boyfriend had been drinking at their residence with Mikkelsen on the evening of August 27. Mikkelsen had planned on crashing at the couple's home. The next morning, according to the police report, the woman, in bed with her boyfriend, awoke to find Mikkelsen having intercourse with her. Stroer says the boyfriend woke up and witnessed the woman pushing Mikkelsen off her. Mikkelsen left the scene and was arrested around 7 a.m.
Mikkelsen is charged with felony sexual assault.
"I deny the allegations," Mikkelsen tells The Pitch.
Mikkelsen's preliminary hearing occurred as this issue went to press.
Mikkelsen does have allies in his stand against sobriety checkpoints. A Kansas City man named Tim (he asked that his last name not be used, to avoid bringing attention to himself or his family) runs the KCCheckpoint Twitter account and website. Tim has never met Mikkelsen, but the two share the feed and the website with another man, who also asked to remain anonymous.
The KCCheckpoint Twitter feed is their most powerful tool. They retweet a daily stream of 140-character warnings about speed traps, accidents and locations of checkpoints to more than 5,000 followers.
Tim joined the movement after what he believes was intrusive questioning at a sobriety stop. Tim says he and his wife were headed to Taco Bell on a Friday night a couple of years ago when they came upon a checkpoint. Tim hadn't been drinking, but an officer asked if he had and wanted to know where he'd been and where he was going.
I can't believe they just asked me those questions, Tim thought as he rolled away from the checkpoint.
His wife was also incensed.
"I had to roll my window up before she opened her mouth," Tim says.
"I know it doesn't seem like a lot," he adds, "but it was."
Mikkelsen and Tim argue that the checkpoints violate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, which protect against unreasonable search and seizure and require due process.
Kansas City lawyer Jay Norton says fighting DUI arrests from properly conducted checkpoints is difficult. He says the courts have upheld them so many times, the chance of mounting a legal challenge to their use is unlikely to succeed. That doesn't mean he agrees with their use. He doesn't. He frequently ridicules them on his blog, kansas-dui.blogspot.com.
"They had to do some pretty serious gymnastics to make that comport with the Constitution," Norton says. "And I don't think it does. I don't think it can. I think the founders of this country would be rolling in their graves thinking about these checkpoints that get set up to shake everybody down."
The U.S. Supreme Court and many state courts have upheld the use of DUI checkpoints, ruling that the benefits of getting drunken drivers off the road outweigh the faults. They're popular, too — 39 states and Washington, D.C., use them.
Their legality may not be in question, but their effectiveness is more difficult to pin down. Proving that DUI-related deaths are dropping nationwide is easy. It's harder, however, to prove that checkpoints are driving the decline.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says alcohol-impaired driving fatalities, in which a driver has a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher, dropped nationwide from 13,491 in 2006 to 10,839 in 2009. But the agency's data don't neatly match the use of checkpoints with declines in DUI-related deaths.
Missouri and Kansas both use checkpoints, but their data are moving in different directions. Missouri saw drunken-driving fatalities fall from 386 to 300 between 2006 and 2009. But impaired-driving deaths in Kansas rose from 125 in 2006 to 154 in 2009. Meanwhile, some states that have outlawed checkpoints, including Idaho and Minnesota, saw DUI-related fatalities drop significantly in the same time period.
Statistics from police departments have the same ambiguity. Checkpoints in the Kansas City metro last summer yielded varying results, including eight DUI arrests out of approximately 200 stopped drivers (4 percent), 24 DUI arrests from 1,158 stops (2 percent) and 11 arrests from 540 (2 percent). A checkpoint last June in Olathe stopped 463 drivers and netted three DUI arrests (0.6 percent).
Sgt. Ron Podraza, who supervises the KCPD's DUI unit, did not respond to interview requests.
It's unclear whether these low percentages mean that checkpoints are scaring drinkers into using designated drivers or that they're ineffective.
Anti-checkpoint advocates say a better, less intrusive alternative would be more "saturation patrols," in which an increased number of police cars patrol an area known for drunken-driving incidents, as opposed to blocking off a stretch of road. Local authorities already conduct saturation patrols, but checkpoint opponents want them used exclusively. Their theory has some support.
Washington state's Traffic Safety Commission found that highly publicized saturation patrols were effective in the state's three most populous counties. (The state doesn't use checkpoints.) King, Snohomish and Pierce counties have shown a drastic drop in DUI-related fatalities using stepped-up patrols and awareness campaigns.
"What we've seen is a 30 percent drop in those counties [in DUI-related fatalities]," says Shelly Baldwin, director of the commission's Impaired Driving Program.
"When people believe they're going to be caught, they'll change their behavior," Baldwin says.
Still, Baldwin says checkpoints are an irresistible tool for law enforcement if they're available. "You're lucky you have checkpoints."
Mikkelsen estimates that a visible location for his checkpoint protests can lead to more than half of the drivers avoiding the checkpoints. Mikkelsen sounds proud of himself.
"I get a lot of positive feedback," he boasts. "So it makes me feel good once I'm there."
Even if his warnings are met with appreciation, Mikkelsen and his allies face ethical questions. By giving away the locations of DUI checkpoints on Twitter to more than 5,000 followers and providing alternate routes, Mikkelsen and KCCheckpoint are potentially keeping drunken drivers on the road.
Mikkelsen and Tim reject the notion that what they're doing isn't right. Tim doubts that people who get soused in Westport and then get behind the wheel are taking the time to look up KCCheckpoint on Twitter.
"These aren't people that get online to check Twitter to find out if they're going to end up going through a checkpoint," Tim says. "These are people that are suicidal. They are out of their mind to be driving drunk."
Tim reluctantly concedes that conducting checkpoints during holidays known for partying — New Year's Eve, St. Patrick's Day, Memorial Day — could be effective and less of an intrusion, even if he still dislikes them.
"That's when people are more likely to drive drunk," Tim says. "What we've done is given police a slippery slope. We've given them something that has no level of control."
Mikkelsen's stance is more entrenched. He won't agree that checkpoints restricted to targeted days are acceptable. He claims that he can eyeball drivers who appear to be drunk.
"When I stand at a police checkpoint, I can tell which people should be pulled over by the way they're driving, without having to pull over every single car," he says.
Mikkelsen is adamant that he's not responsible for any drunken drivers who elude police.
"Because they decide to drive drunk, I'm not going to hold my sign down. To me, that's discriminate," Mikkelsen says. "If I'm exercising that speech, I want to exercise it to everybody."
He says his goal is to let people drive wherever they're going.
"I want everybody to just make it home safe," he says. "I don't want anybody to have to deal with the police. And the reason why is because I feel like police — they're willing to use violence against peaceful people."
His Main Street location affords him plenty of streetlights to stand under on this late-October Friday night. Traffic lights assure a captive audience at intersections.
As the night goes on, traffic slows a little near the checkpoint, but several cars honk in appreciation. Despite this being Mikkelsen's second checkpoint protest of the night (he was in Mission earlier), he is an energetic blur of righteousness and adrenaline, bounding up and down the street shouting, tweeting out details, maintaining the live stream online, and talking to people who walk by.
"Take a right if your evening's been awesome," one of Mikkelsen's fellow protesters tells a driver.
One woman, possibly the kind Mikkelsen says he knows should be pulled over, stops at a red light near Main Street and Westport Road. She rolls down the passenger window of her SUV. Mikkelsen and his friends yell about the checkpoint.
"Are you serious? she shouts back. "Ah, I gotta straighten the fuck up!"
Then she drives toward the checkpoint.
Mikkelsen and his companions release victorious howls into the frosty air with each turning car, a sort of rebel yell for those who believe that checkpoints are an infringement on civil liberties.
At one point, it appears that the police have ceased stopping drivers. Many squad cars have left the site on calls, speeding away with sirens blaring.
"Now they're not stopping anybody," Mikkelsen says, surprised and giddy. He tweets the development. But the anti-checkpoint group can't claim victory.
Mikkelsen trudges down the street to get a closer look at the stop. Officers soon begin checking drivers again. Mikkelsen takes to Twitter to let Kansas City know.
"The checkpoint is running again at 40th & Main St," he taps into his phone. And Tim dutifully retweets the information to KCCheckpoint's followers.
The night ends with 544 vehicles stopped, 13 arrests for driving under the influence and an undetermined number of vehicles that, with Mikkelsen's help, escaped.