Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Giving police officers conducting a sobriety checkpoint the discretion to suspend temporarily and then resume their operation of the checkpoint to alleviate traffic caused by the checkpoint violates neither the Fourth Amendment nor its state constitutional counterpart, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Oct. 27 (Commonwealth v. Worthy, Pa., No. 1 WAP 2007, 10/27/08).
From now on, however, administrative requirements for the operation of checkpoints should limit officers' discretion to suspend and resume checkpoints to relieve traffic congestion, the court said.
Guidelines for Checkpoints.
In Michigan Dep't of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a sobriety checkpoint that was conducted according to written guidelines. One of the factors relied upon by the Sitz court was its determination that the stop was only minimally intrusive because it was conducted following written guidelines that limited the discretion of officers to single out individual motorists.
Although the Pennsylvania Constitution affords greater individual privacy protection than the Fourth Amendment in some contexts, it does not when it comes to the constitutionality of sobriety checkpoints. To ensure the sobriety checkpoints in the state are operated in a constitutional fashion, the court has in Commonwealth v. Blouse, 611 A.2d 1177 (Pa. 1992), established a set of state guidelines that include a requirement that “the decision as to which vehicles to stop at the checkpoint must be established by administratively pre-fixed, objective standards, and must not be left to the unfettered discretion of the officers at the scene.”
The sobriety checkpoint that nailed the defendant in this case was conducted according to written guidelines that required officers to stop every car while the checkpoint was operating, but the offices had discretion to suspend their operation of the checkpoint when traffic got heavy. Three times, the lead officer suspended the operation in order to relieve traffic backups caused by the checkpoint.
Substantial Compliance With Guidelines.
The lower state courts decided that the on-the-scene decision to suspend and then resume the operation amounted to the arbitrary and unfettered discretion of the enforcing officers that the guidelines were designed to prevent. The state high court reversed in an opinion by Justice Seamus P. McCaffery.
The court pointed out that it said in Blouse that “[s]ubstantial compliance with the guidelines is all that is required to reduce the intrusiveness of the search to a constitutionally acceptable level.” That meant “substantial—and not complete—compliance,” the court said here.
The court explained a critical consideration in this case was the absence of any allegation or evidence that the lead officer's exercise of discretion to suspend and resume the checkpoint was linked in any way to stopping any one car or driver. The only evidence was that the officer based these decisions on his experience and training regarding traffic conditions, the court stressed.
Read full article here. [Brooks Holland]