Road Block vs. Probable Cause

Drivers arrested for a New Jersey DWI / DUI at sobriety checkpoints often wonder why police were able to stop them without probable cause. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has given police latitude to conduct drunk driving roadblocks so long as certain requirements are met.

But sometimes police don’t follow proper protocol for sobriety checkpoints, and evidence gathered there can be successfully challenged. A skilled New Jersey DWI / DUI defense attorney at Levow DWI Law will thoroughly examine every aspect of a sobriety checkpoint arrest and determine whether police followed the proper procedures when operating the roadblock.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects every individual against unreasonable search and seizure. Roadblocks constitute seizures for Fourth Amendment purposes, but the key issue is reasonableness. The officers must have a reasonable belief that a crime has occurred, or the seizure must be carried out under a plan containing explicit, neutral limitations on the conduct of individual officers.

Courts determine reasonableness by weighing the government’s interests against the intrusiveness of the detention on the individual. Under normal circumstances, police must have probable cause to stop a driver. Probable cause means the officer must be in possession of specific facts that indicate a crime has occurred, and that the individual stopped was involved in that activity. Reasonableness means that anyone in the officer’s position would have reached the same conclusion.

Even with these prohibitions in place, not all searches or seizures require probable cause. Sobriety checkpoints are considered to be part of a regulatory scheme in furtherance of an administrative purpose when they are conducted according to established guidelines. Searches designed to achieve an administrative purpose, instead of securing evidence as part of a criminal investigation, don’t typically constitute a Fourth Amendment violation, even without probable cause.

The requirements laid out by the Supreme Court for DWI / DUI checkpoints are straightforward – police must use a set mathematical formula, such as every third or fifth car, which limits the discretion of individual officers in deciding which vehicles to stop.

In addition, each motorist must be stopped only briefly to answer a few simple questions that allow police to assess the driver for signs of intoxication. Officers are also permitted to shine their flashlights into the vehicle to look for alcoholic beverages. The Supreme Court has determined that this type of brief intrusion is minor compared to the value to society in keeping impaired drivers off the road.

Drivers are sometimes arrested for DWI / DUI after being stopped at other types of roadblocks unrelated to sobriety checkpoints. Some of these roadblocks are lawful, and some are not. Roadblocks staged for the primary purpose of detecting evidence of ordinary criminal activity have been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

For example, checkpoints held solely to look for illegal drugs have been determined to be unlawful. Illegal drugs don’t pose the same immediate threat to public safety that exists with DUI / DWI driving, the courts have ruled. Therefore, if the main purpose of a roadblock is to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing, it is unconstitutional.

However, police are permitted to use roadblocks to briefly stop drivers to pass out fliers and ask if they witnessed a crime. Motorists stopped at such a checkpoint who are suspected of drunk driving can be detained, but only if probable cause exists. In Illinois v Lidster, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Illinois roadblock did not violate Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure.

Certain types of roadblocks are lawful when operated under certain guidelines, and others aren’t. Not all evidence collected at sobriety checkpoints is admissible in court. A New Jersey DWI attorney who focuses on DWI / DUI defense will establish whether a sobriety checkpoint was lawfully conducted, and whether any evidence gathered is likely to be excluded in court.

Please call Levow DWI Law at 877-593-1717 to discuss your roadblock or sobriety checkpoint issue, or any other DWI / DUI issue. Call now for a free consultation.