Roadside checkpoints are anti-DUI tools utilized by Pennsylvania law enforcement to catch motorists who are driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. These temporary and essentially random checkpoints contain visible roadblocks that are occupied by local authorities for a duration of hours in an effort to serve as a visual deterrent for impaired drivers.
For the purposes of this article, we'll address (1) the constitutionality of roadside sobriety checkpoints, (2) some of the guidelines associated with these checkpoints (3) and what Pennsylvania drivers should expect if they are stopped when passing through a checkpoint in the state.
The Constitutionality of Roadside Checkpoints
Although this method of catching impaired motorists has been adopted by law enforcement in many states across the nation, roadside checkpoints are still relatively controversial. Opponents of the DUI checkpoints claim that the absence of the crucial element of reasonable suspicion that a driver is breaking the law leaves room for police officers to strip the constitutional rights of state motorists. Meanwhile, those who support the checkpoints argue that they are effective deterrents that ensure road safety.
Despite the conflicting opinions of the public, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of roadside checkpoints in a popular case known as Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz in the early 90s. The Court ultimately concluded that the degree of intrusion associated with roadside checkpoints is justified due to the public's vast interest in reducing the rates of accidents caused by motorists who drive under the influence.
Although these checkpoints are technically constitutional, they were only intended to curb impaired driving. Many law enforcement officers use these stops to administer unrelated criminal complaints and citations for violations that are much more minuscule, such as defective tail lights, tinted windows, and out of date registrations. As a result, many legal experts believe that making an exception for roadside checks have proved to be not as effective as the court believed that it would be.
Legal Roadside Checkpoint Guidelines in Pennsylvania
The Supreme Court has ruled that each state that has adopted this anti-DUI tool must follow a number of guidelines that maintain the legality of roadside checkpoints. If local law enforcement deviates from these guidelines, an arrest for a DUI within a checkpoint could be considered unlawful, leading to the dismissal of DUI charges against a state motorist. Here are some of the guidelines that Pennsylvania authorities are required to follow:
Law enforcement cannot choose motor vehicles at random
Officers occupying a roadside checkpoint must have an established a numerical system or pattern in which they stop motor vehicles. For example, all the police officers at a checkpoint may decide that they will conduct a stop on every fifth car that passes through. Having a consistent plan is supposed to prevent officers from engaging in potential discriminatory practices based on irrelevant factors like appearances when deciding who they will stop.
Checkpoints must be clearly visible to ensure the safety of all parties
These checkpoints should not be hidden. It is required of all roadside checkpoints to be clearly visible by all drivers approaching it. This way, drivers are given time to stop or slow to a safe speed. DUI checkpoints must be located in places that will not disrupt traffic or create a hazardous situation for motorists.
It's important to note that a local police department is required to publicize the location of each roadside checkpoint for a substantial amount of time before they are conducted.
The stop must be brief unless an officer has reasonable suspicion
The stop may not exceed a length when the unreasonable seizure of a person without reasonable suspicion is constituted. Interactions between police officers and drivers are only supposed to last long enough for an officer to ask a few questions and reasonably determine if a person is impaired. Longer encounters indicate that an officer may be looking for a reason to suspect a motorist that has not exhibited apparent signs of impairment. During these stops, officers typically are watching out an odor of alcohol, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech etc.
You can not be chased or arrested for avoiding checkpoints
According to Pennsylvania statutory law, you are allowed to turn your vehicle around prior to a roadside checkpoint if you want to. However, motorists must do so in a way that does not in any way, shape, or form violate state traffic laws and regulations.
What to Expect If You Are Stopped
As mentioned above, a vehicle must only be stopped based on administrative decisions followed by the police officers at that specific roadside checkpoint. If stopped, an officer will tell you to roll your window. Then he or she must advise you of the nature of the stop and proceed to ask you a few questions. If an officer suspects that you are impaired based on the brief encounter you two had, then he may ask you to drive to the second phase of the checkpoint. This almost always means that you will be requested to undergo field sobriety tests.
Pennsylvania law gives motorists the option to refuse to take field sobriety tests. All an officer can do from that point on is ask you specific questions regarding information about your license, proof of insurance and your registration. Any other information requested by an officer does not have to be answered. Many drivers end up getting themselves in trouble when they volunteer information that isn't legally required to be given to a police officer.
In the event that you are taken into police custody, you cannot deny a chemical test. This is because of Pennsylvania's implied consent law, which actually could lead to a suspension of a driver's license for an entire year for merely refusing to comply with chemical testing.
Experienced Philadelphia DUI Defense Attorney
If you have been arrested and charged with a DUI at a roadside checkpoint, you should immediately consult with an attorney. A legal professional who is knowledgeable of the guidelines applicable to these checkpoints will be able to determine if local law enforcement acted in accordance with standard protocol. Remember, a charge for this offense does not guarantee a conviction. These charges could be drastically reduced or even dismissed in the right circumstances with the help of a skilled attorney. Joseph D. Lento is here to protect your rights. Contact him today.