Are DUI checkpoints constitutional? An update on recent checkpoint caselaw.

We frequently represent clients who have been arrested and charged with DUI after being stopped at a DUI checkpoint and allegedly failing field sobriety tests. The first question we typically receive is whether or not these police DUI checkpoints are constitutional. The answer depends on the procedures that the police followed in deciding where to place the checkpoint and how they operated the checkpoint.   

 

ARE DUI CHECKPOINTS LEGAL?

In general, the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions do not prohibit the use of DUI checkpoints or even seatbelt and other motor vehicle checkpoints. However, because checkpoints constitute a search and seizure for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, the appellate courts have established strict guidelines which the police must follow in order to legally conduct a checkpoint. A recent case from the Superior Court, Commonwealth v. Menichino, slightly loosens the requirements on the type of data police have to gather prior to conducting a checkpoint. However, it establishes that there are still strict rules which the police must follow. If the Commonwealth cannot show that the police followed those rules, then the results of the checkpoint such as field sobriety tests, the observations of the officer, and the results of chemical testing could be suppressed and excluded from evidence at trial.

LIMITS ON DUI CHECKPOINTS IN PENNSYLVANIA

In Pennsylvania, the general rules that the police must follow when setting up and conducting a DUI checkpoint are called the Tarbert-Blouse guidelines. The guidelines require the police to substantially comply with the following five criteria:

(1) vehicle stops must be brief and must not entail a physical search;

(2) there must be sufficient warning of the existence of the checkpoint;

(3) the decision to conduct a checkpoint, as well as the decisions as to time and place for the checkpoint, must be subject to prior administrative approval;

(4) the choice of time and place for the checkpoint must be based on local experience as to where and when intoxicated drivers are likely to be traveling; and

(5) 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.

If the police do not “substantially comply” with the Tarbert-Blouse guidelines, then the results of the stop, such as blood or breath testing results, could be subject to a successful motion to suppress, and the court could dismiss the case.

Many of requirements are relatively simple for the police to follow and typically do not lead to litigation. Most Pennsylvania police departments generally seem to understand that that the stops must be brief and they cannot search the car, that there must be warning of the existence of the checkpoint, and that the checkpoint and number of cars which will be stopped must be planned in advance. That is not to say that they always follow those rules, but those issues are less likely to arise in a DUI checkpoint case. The fourth requirement, however, is often the subject of litigation and motions to suppress because the police, particularly in Philadelphia, simply do not obtain the necessary data to justify the location of the DUI checkpoint. Of course, if the police do not follow the other four requirements, then that could be the basis for a motion to suppress, as well.

In at least two appellate cases, the Pennsylvania Superior Court has ruled in favor of the defendant and excluded the results of the DUI checkpoint because the police departments in question failed to properly justify the locations of the checkpoints.

MOTIONS TO SUPPRESS IN DUI CHECKPOINT CASES

First, in Commonwealth v. Blee, 695 A.2d 806 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1997), the Superior Court upheld the granting of the motion to suppress because the police testified at the hearing that they simply established the checkpoint on one of the busier roads in their jurisdiction. At the motion to suppress hearing, the police officer who planned the checkpoint was unable to provide any specific data of any kind with respect to the number of DUI arrests or alcohol-related accidents at the actual location of the checkpoint. Therefore, the Superior Court held that when the Commonwealth fails to introduce evidence concerning the number of DUI-related arrests and/or accidents for a checkpoint’s location, then a checkpoint will be deemed unconstitutional.  

Second, in Commonwealth v. Garibay, 106 A.3d 136 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2014), the Pittsburgh police conducted a seatbelt checkpoint on a relatively busy road in Pittsburgh. They advertised the checkpoint on billboards and in radio advertisements, and they also erected signs seventy-five yards prior to the checkpoint which alerted motorists to the checkpoint. The defendant in that case attempted to go through the checkpoint, and after police observed obvious problems with his car, they eventually arrested him and charged him with DUI.

Mr. Garibay moved to suppress the results of the chemical testing at trial, arguing at the seatbelt checkpoint was unconstitutional. The Garibay court held that the standards for a DUI checkpoint and seatbelt checkpoint are the same. For both types of checkpoints, the Commonwealth must present sufficient evidence and data to show that the checkpoint complies with the Tarbert-Blouse guidelines, and the guidelines require more than general testimony that the police picked a busy road.

In Garibay, the officer who designed the checkpoint testified only that he had picked a busy roadway. The officer provided generalized testimony lacking in any “specifics whatsoever regarding accidents, arrests, citations, violations, etc., regarding seatbelt usage or non-usage at the specific checkpoint location, nor did it present any insight into the selection of the checkpoint time and duration.” Therefore, the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order denying the motion to suppress and excluded the results of the checkpoint.

In both Blee and Garibay, the courts referred to a requirement that the Commonwealth present data relating to the specific checkpoint location. In the most recent case addressing this issue, however, the Superior Court appears to have loosened the requirement.

In Commonwealth v. Menchino, the Superior Court loosened the requirement by holding that the specific checkpoint location should not be read so narrowly as to require the trial court to consider only DUI arrests at the exact unit block of the DUI checkpoint. Instead, where the Commonwealth presents significant data about the number of DUI arrests in the jurisdiction and the roadway at large, the Commonwealth may substantially comply with the Tarbert-Blouse guidelines. The police may consider DUI arrests and alcohol-related accidents in the general area, and the checkpoint is not limited to a specific block when deciding where to place a checkpoint. Therefore, the Superior Court reversed the decision of the trial court granting the motion to suppress.

Although Menchino loosens the standard at least a little bit, the data presented by the police in Menchino was substantial. The officer testified both to the exact number of arrests on a certain road as well as the number of arrests in the larger jurisdiction. Ultimately, the Commonwealth was able to show that 50% of all DUI arrests in that jurisdiction occurred somewhere along the road on which the police established the checkpoint. Therefore, the Superior Court recognized that police have at least some flexibility in deciding where to put the checkpoint in terms of exact placement along the road. For this reason, Menchino likely does not dramatically loosen the requirements on the police in terms of the data needed to plan a DUI checkpoint. 

Given the strict requirements of the Tarbert-Blouse guidelines, our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers are often able to successfully litigate motions to suppress based on challenges to the placement of the checkpoint and the procedures followed while operating the checkpoint. In many Philadelphia DUI checkpoint cases, the level of data presented simply does not comply with the requirements of the state and federal constitutions. Therefore, it is often possible to challenge Philadelphia DUI checkpoints using the Superior Court’s decisions in Blee and Garibay. Likewise, if police in the suburban counties do not follow the rules, then it may be possible to successfully challenge those checkpoints based on a lack of data, as well.

YOU HAVE RIGHTS - WE CAN HELP YOU PROTECT THEM

Philadelphia DUI Checkpoint Lawyer - Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Philadelphia DUI Checkpoint Lawyer - Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

The Pennsylvania courts have found that you do not surrender all of your constitutional rights when you decide to operate a vehicle on a public street. Instead, the Tarbert-Blouse guidelines provide a number of requirements with which the police must substantially comply. When the police do not follow the law and violate your constitutional rights by conducting an illegal stop or an illegal checkpoint, they may not use the results of their illegal actions in a prosecution against you. The bottom line is that our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have tried and won countless DUI cases. In many cases, there are pre-trial motions to be litigated and potential defenses at trial. You should not assume that just because you have been arrested, you have to plead guilty. Instead, you should call one of our DUI lawyers for a free 15-minute DUI defense strategy session. Each case is different. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with one of our Philadelphia DUI defense lawyers.