By: William C. “Bubba” Head, Criminal Defense Attorney and ABA Board-Certified DUI Attorney
Georgia State Patrol (GSP) troopers investigate traffic crashes and enforce traffic and criminal laws on the state’s roads. GSP Post 50 Capitol Police controls access into the state Capitol Hill. The goal of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety (GOHS) is to enforce the state’s laws and reduce the number of incidents caused by impaired driving. In its efforts, starting in 2004, the GOHS has been funding and supporting a special DUI task force in the Atlanta area called the “Nighthawks” to help arrest intoxicated and drugged drivers mainly at DUI checkpoints. These efforts slow down the crime rates of driving under the influence.
First established under former Gov. Sonny Perdue, this DUI enforcement agency’s effort has expanded under Gov. Nathan Deal. After expansion, the Georgia Department of Public Safety (GA DPS) added new task force units and troopers. The GA DPS oversees the Georgia State Patrol divisions and the Motor Carrier Compliance divisions.
The Nighthawks are law enforcement officers based in Atlanta, Ga. This task force specializes in DUI law enforcement. Requirements for this division of the GA DPS are a minimum of a high school diploma or G.E.D. plus candidates must be age 21+ upon their graduation from trooper school. To perform their job to the fullest of their ability, physical fitness conditions must be met. The Nighthawks DUI task force North patrol units concentrate on the metro Atlanta area: Fulton County, Athens-Clarke County, and Gwinnett County.
In 2009, the North team (the original team) added six officers to combat drunk driving in Fulton County, Athens-Clarke County, and Gwinnett County. According to the Department of Public Safety, these counties had the highest number of drunk driving-related fatality rates in the state of Georgia. The Nighthawks also added a DUI Task Force South team assigned to patrol the Savannah-Statesboro region with seven troopers. The newest team, Nighthawks DUI Task Force Middle, established in 2012, covers the Columbus-Macon area. This “Middle” team is assigned six troopers. The entire DUI Task Force Nighthawks unit is stationed in the Atlanta area. These troopers have long-term GOHS enforcement team expansion plans.
Per the Department of Public Safety, the elite Georgia State Patrol troopers received the International Association of Chiefs of Police National Impaired Enforcement Award for their work in 2005. On average, Georgia State Patrol troopers make over 300 DUI arrests each year, and some troopers have exceeded 600 driving while impaired arrests in one year.
The Nighthawks patrols are assigned to DUI checkpoint locations near major sporting events and festivities that attract (are known for) the high volume of drinking and driving.
Georgia State troopers also establish DUI checkpoints. Usually, six (or more) vehicles are deployed to a safety checkpoint or sobriety checkpoint around midnight when the traffic volume subsides. Multiple vehicles are needed for sufficient visibility and manpower to handle the DUI roadblock traffic. One car stays ready to give chase to any motorist who (by making an illegal traffic maneuver) tries to dodge the DUI checkpoint location.
Patrols assigned to complete DUI checkpoints and check a driver’s BAC level are deployed to the feeder roads between the major north-south highways. These feeder roads include Peachtree Road, Piedmont Road, and Roswell Road in Atlanta’s Buckhead area, going east or west toward I-75, I-85, or Georgia 400. The placement of the checkpoints is intentional. The drunk driver will not see the Nighthawks’ sobriety checkpoint, so they will have no alternative route to avoid the roadblock.
These GSP specialized drunk driving enforcement units, with only about three dozen troopers and supervisors, made over 15% of all DUI arrests in Georgia last year by concentrating its drunken driving enforcement efforts on areas with a high concentration of restaurants and bars. Georgia’s additional 70,000 troopers arrested the other 85% of DUI perpetrators.
Despite the efforts made by these GSP Nighthawks, the number of DUI arrests in Georgia has plummeted for several years. A previous GSP DUI unit, the “A-Team,” was established in the 1990s under former Gov. Zell Miller. This GSP patrol was located around Atlanta and focused its efforts in the trendy Buckhead neighborhood. This unit showed the value of focusing on driving while intoxicated cases.
At that same time, the City of Atlanta Police Department set up its own elite DUI task force unit. Federal highway funds were allocated to help purchase portable breath-testing devices, video cameras, and other specialized equipment. These funds were also used to train an elite team of Atlanta Police officers.
This Atlanta DUI task force peaked in the 1990s and was useful in making thousands of drunk-driving and drugged-driving arrests each year. One Atlanta DUI task member booked over 2,200 DUI arrests in a four-year period. In the 2000s, Atlanta PD phased out its DUI task force team. Unfortunately, in 2013, the DUI unit was disbanded by the police chief, George Turner. Due to this lack of emphasis on stopping drunken drivers, now only approximately one-third of Atlanta DUI arrests occur.
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