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How Is this Constitutional? Pennsylvania Police Arrest 13 in One Weekend at Delaware County “Sobriety Checkpoint”

By Versageek (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia CommonsAbout 50 police officers from several Delaware County townships joined Pennsylvania State Police troopers to operate a DUI checkpoint one weekend in June. Officers stopped an estimated 2,500 motorists to check for sobriety. The stops were not based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Anyone driving through that intersection was subject to being stopped and questioned. This raises a seemingly obvious question of how this is legal under the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled over 20 years ago that “sobriety checkpoints” like the one in Upper Darby do not violate the Fourth Amendment. It left it to the states to decide whether to restrict police authority in this regard. A few states have chosen to do so, but not Pennsylvania.

Police established the checkpoint at a busy intersection in Upper Darby Township. They began stopping vehicles at 10:00 p.m. on Friday, June 6, 2014 and continued until 2:00 a.m. Sunday morning. They allowed at least 500 vehicles to pass without inspection when lines of cars backed up almost two blocks. Police say they administered field sobriety tests to about 25 people, resulting in DUI charges against 13 people. They issued citations for other traffic violations as well, such as expired inspection or registration, unrestrained children, and license suspensions.

The U.S. Supreme Court first opened the door to random checkpoints in 1976, when it ruled in United States v. Martinez-Fuerte that Border Patrol checkpoints intended to look for undocumented immigrants did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The court specifically addressed sobriety checkpoints in Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz in 1990. The court held that the state has a “substantial government interest” in preventing drunk driving, that the checkpoints are rationally related to that goal, and that the impact on drivers was minimal. Justice Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion noting that checkpoints are “usually operated at night in an unannounced location,” and that the state had made enormous strides in reducing drunk driving without checkpoints.

An informational checkpoint, at which police stopped vehicles to ask for information about a recent automobile accident, was ruled constitutional in 2004 in Illinois v. Lidster. That case involved a person convicted of DUI who was arrested at an informational checkpoint. The Supreme Court drew the line, however, at checkpoints that stop vehicles for “the discovery and interdiction of illegal narcotics” in 2000’s Indianapolis v. Edmond.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has also held that sobriety checkpoints do not violate the Pennsylvania Constitution’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. Its 1973 decision in Comm. v. Swanger established that traffic stops are “seizures” within the constitutional meaning of the word. In 1987, Comm. v. Tarbert established rules that police must follow when operating a sobriety check, such as requirements that the stops be brief, that they do not search vehicles, and that they locate checkpoints in places that are likely to have drunk drivers. The court has adjusted or reviewed these rules over the years, such as in Comm. v. Blouse in 1992.

If you have been arrested or charged with DUI, you should consult with a knowledgeable and skilled DUI lawyer, who can advise you of your rights and help you plan the best possible defense. Zachary B. Cooper, Attorney at Law, P.C. has dedicated 100% of his law practice to DUI defense. Please contact us today online or at (215) 542-0800 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with our legal team.

More Blog Posts:

Field Sobriety and Breath Test Results Challenged in Appeal by Pennsylvania DUI Defendant, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, June 12, 2014

Pennsylvania DUI Defendant Argues on Appeal that Verdict Went against Weight of Evidence, Gets New Trial, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, May 13, 2014

Man Arrested, Charged with DUI Despite 0.00 Percent BAC, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, March 14, 2014

Photo credit: By Versageek (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.