Sobriety Checkpoints – Roadblocks

Police in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are increasingly relying on sobriety checkpoints to catch suspected DUI drivers. The courts have repeatedly ruled that these roadblocks don't violate drivers' constitutional rights as long as certain guidelines are followed. If you were arrested for a Pennsylvania DUI at a sobriety checkpoint where police didn't follow the protocol laid out by the courts, it is possible to successfully challenge your case. Your Pennsylvania DUI attorney at Zachary B. Cooper, Attorney at Law, P.C. is ready to review your drunk driving case and determine an aggressive defense strategy.

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Michigan Department of State Police vs. Sitz established many of the guidelines that govern the operation of sobriety checkpoints. The Supreme Court's ruling is meant to balance the rights of individuals against society's need to prevent drunk driving.

The Court ruled that police conducting sobriety checkpoints must use a neutral mathematical formula, such as every third vehicle, to select which drivers and vehicles to stop. This is designed to reduce the possibility of stopping drivers based solely on appearance.

The court's ruling also established that sobriety checkpoints must ensure the safety of both drivers and police, be highly visible, and minimize the amount of time that each driver is stopped at the checkpoint.

Police should stop each driver just long enough to ask a few brief questions and to spot signs of intoxication such as an odor of alcohol, slurred speech, and glassy, bloodshot eyes. Drivers that show no signs of intoxication should be allowed to leave the checkpoint without any further delay.

Drivers who show signs of impairment should be sent to a separate area for a field sobriety test. Any additional investigation must be based on probable cause, and general rules of detention and arrest apply.

Sobriety checkpoints must be planned as part of an ongoing safe-driving campaign and follow established departmental policy. Sobriety checkpoints should be planned with the help of a supervising judge and a representative from the district attorney's office. The supervising officers must thoroughly understand the civil rights and safety issues that can arise at a sobriety checkpoint. Police should advise the public of the sobriety checkpoint by making an announcement through local media, although they're not required to disclose the exact location.

The Supreme Court deemed that the primary purpose of a sobriety checkpoint cannot be to detect evidence of crimes or to arrest drunk drivers, but must be intended to safeguard the public by preventing drunk driving. Because of this, sobriety checkpoints are classified as serving a regulatory purpose rather than a criminal investigation, and therefore police don't need a warrant to stop drivers entering the roadblock.

However, the Supreme Court ruled that stopping a car at a roadblock constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. A Fourth Amendment seizure occurs "when there is a governmental termination of freedom of movement through means intentionally applied." However, the courts have determined that not all roadblocks violate the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

A balancing test that weighs the intrusiveness of the stop on the individual against the government's interests is used to determine whether individuals' Fourth Amendment rights are violated.

Based on Pennsylvania case law, to comply with Federal and State Constitution's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, a sobriety checkpoint must meet the following five criteria:

  1. Vehicle stops must be brief and must not entail a physical search
  2. There must be sufficient warning of the existence of the checkpoint
  3. The decision to conduct a checkpoint, as well as the decisions as to time and place for the checkpoint, must be subject to prior administrative approval
  4. The choice of time and place for the checkpoint must be based on local experience as to where and when intoxicated drivers are likely to be traveling
  5. The decision as to which vehicles to stop at the checkpoint must be established by administratively pre-fixed, objective standards, and must not be left to the unfettered discretion of law enforcement officers at the scene.

It may be possible to challenge evidence gathered at a sobriety checkpoint or even your Pennsylvania DUI arrest itself.The Pennsylvania DUI attorneys at Zachary B. Cooper, Attorney at Law, P.C. will thoroughly analyze your arrest and the circumstances of a sobriety checkpoint to determine the appropriate challenges. Please contact us today for a free consultation.