Roadblocks

Roadblocks, or Vehicle Safety Checkpoints

In a vehicle safety checkpoint, the police block off the road and stop every driver. They will typically ask for the driver’s documentation and may ask some questions. This would seem to be an illegal seizure or search under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Per the plain language of the Fourth Amendment, police cannot search an individual without probable cause and a warrant. If the police are stopping every driver, surely this violates the Fourth Amendment, right? Not according to both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Georgia Supreme Court, who have both upheld the constitutionality of vehicle checkpoints.

This does not mean, however, that there are no limits as to how and why checkpoints can be initiated, or that the police can do whatever they want once a person has been stopped.  There are certain rules they have to follow in order for the roadblock to be deemed constitutional, and if these rules are not followed, a motion to suppress any evidence obtained as a result of the illegal roadblock will likely be successful, potentially resulting in dismissal of the case. These rules are:

  1. The roadblock must be approved be a supervisor,
  2. Every driver must be stopped,
  3. The roadblock must be clearly marked as a police roadblock,
  4. The officer interacting with drivers must have sufficient experience and training to determine which drivers should be asked to complete Standardized Field Sobriety Testing, and
  5. The roadblock cannot be an “unreasonable burden” on drivers.

Furthermore, roadblocks must have a legitimate purpose in order to justify the intrusion. Legitimate purposes include:

  1. Seatbelt checks,
  2. Intercepting fleeing criminals,
  3. Checking for valid licenses, registration, and insurance,
  4. Equipment safety checks,
  5. Preventing imminent terrorist attacks,
  6. Detection and interception of undocumented immigrants, and (of course),
  7. Sobriety checkpoints.

They cannot be used for generalized crime control purposes.

So now, on to the important part. What are my rights if I’m stopped at a DUI checkpoint?

  1. You do not have to answer any questions. I typically recommend that my clients politely decline to answer any questions asked of them by the police, because the police can use your words and your manner of speaking against you.  For example, the police routinely write in their police reports that a person was “belligerent” or if they had “slurred speech.”
  2. You are not required to participate in Standardized Field Sobriety Testing. Whether or not the police inform you that these tests are voluntary, you legally cannot be compelled to perform them.  Most attorneys who practice DUI law will tell you that these tests are difficult to pass even for a person who is not under the influence, and that they were designed that way.  It is generally safer to decline to take them (again, politely).
  3. You should not consent to any searches of your vehicle. While in certain circumstances the police can search your vehicle even without your consent, it is much more difficult to challenge the legality of a search in court if you give the police your permission to search.

 Can I turn around to avoid a DUI checkpoint?

This is tricky, because police are typically given a lot of leeway. In a normal traffic stop, an officer must be able to point to facts that gave him or her “reasonable suspicion” to believe that a person was engaged in criminal activity – usually, the officer directly witnesses the offense (speeding, for example). In a roadblock case, though, so long as the officer can articulate a reason for believing in “good faith” that a driver was taking measures to avoid the checkpoint, the stop will usually be upheld. Any abnormal or unusual behavior is usually sufficient, such as an abrupt turn. This reason must be more than a “hunch,” but this is still a very low bar.