In general, roadway checkpoints are unconstitutional. The 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that people shall be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. That means that in order to search or seize a person, a police officer must either have a warrant or probable cause to believe that a person has committed a crime. A seizure is defined, generally, as being detained. A person does not have to be arrested to be detained. Under current legal precedent, when a person is not free to leave an encounter with a law-enforcement officer, a seizure has occurred. In general, a person is not free to leave a checkpoint stop unless one is released by an officer manning the stop. A checkpoint stop, then, implicates a person's rights under the 4th Amendment.
Over time, the United States Supreme Court has made a few exceptions to the general rule that police need a warrant or probable cause in order to search or seize someone. When police are investigating a crime, for instance, they can pat down individuals to make sure they do not have weapons. This is sanctioned by the Supreme Court in order to allow officers to reasonably ensure their own safety while investigating matters.
The United States Supreme Court has also made exceptions to the general rule that police roadblocks are unconstitutional. The first exception came at the national border. In a 1976 case, the Supreme Court ruled that police or border agents could set up fixed or permanent roadblocks designed to detect and capture persons illegally crossing the national border. Using the same ideas set out in that and other border-crossing cases, the Supreme Court in 1990 ruled that brief seizures at sobriety checkpoints may also be Constitutional.
A checkpoint set up by police for the general interest of crime control is unconstitutional. When the police narrowly tailor a checkpoint to target drunken drivers, however, the checkpoint may be constitutional, as long as police adhere to a specific set of criteria. Sobriety checkpoints were sanctioned by the Supreme Court for, essentially, public policy reasons. Given the numbers of deaths and injuries caused by drunken drivers, the State's interest in detecting and removing impaired drivers from the roadway, it was thought, outweighed the rights of persons to be free from brief seizures at the checkpoints. Challenges to sobriety checkpoints usually focus on the reasons behind setting up the checkpoints and the manner in which officials conducted them.
Most people stopped at a checkpoint may not fully understand their rights, and still fewer understand that an arrest at a checkpoint may be challenged on the basis that the checkpoint itself was unconstitutional. That is because the law of sobriety checkpoints is extremely complicated and has developed over the years through decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court and federal and state appellate courts.
If you are arrested for driving while impaired (DWI) or for any other reason, after being stopped at a checkpoint, challenging the constitutionality of the checkpoint can mean the difference between winning and losing your case. If you can convince a judge that the reason for setting up the checkpoint or the manner in which the police conducted the checkpoint was unconstitutional, then any evidence that the police gathered after your stop may be thrown out and may not be used against you.
It is imperative if you have been stopped at a checkpoint and charged with a crime that you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can assist you in your case. Only an experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to identify the appropriate issues in your case and will possess the requisite knowledge and experience to assert and prosecute your defenses.
Certain defenses must be raised at specific, critical junctures in criminal cases, and most non-lawyers may be unaware of certain potential defenses and the ramifications of failing to appropriately raise them. Furthermore, an experienced criminal attorney will be well-versed at techniques to identify and gather crucial evidence in your case. You must not delay contacting a criminal defense attorney if you have been charged with a crime after being stopped at a checkpoint, as the evidence that could vindicate you may be lost or destroyed or may, with the passage of time, become unavailable.
If you have been charged with DWI or any other crime as a result of a checkpoint stop, please give the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC a call today at (704) 370-2828 or Contact Us.