The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Mercado, holding that Philadelphia Police conducted a constitutional DUI checkpoint despite the fact that the officer who planned the checkpoint selected the location of the checkpoint without any data indicating how many DUIs have occurred at the location of the checkpoint. This is an extremely bad case for privacy rights which allows police to basically establish motor vehicle checkpoints at will without any prior research. The decision also conflicts with the court’s longstanding precedent in cases like Commonwealth v. Blee and Commonwealth v. Garibay.
The Facts of Mercado
In Mercado, the Philadelphia police stopped the defendant at a DUI checkpoint on the 300 block of East Allegheny Ave in Philadelphia, PA. The officers noticed that the defendant had bloodshot, glassy eyes, and they smelled the odor of burnt marijuana coming from his vehicle and breath. The defendant subsequently admitted to smoking marijuana. He submitted to a “field sobriety test” and presumably failed, and the police then took him into custody on suspicion of DUI. They then transported him to the Police Detention Unit for a blood test.
Prosecutors later charged the defendant with DUI in the Philadelphia Municipal Court. The defendant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the results of the stop, including the blood test results, arguing that the police did not have sufficient data regarding prior incidences of DUI at 300 East Kensington Ave. to establish a constitutional checkpoint at that location.
At the motions hearing, the Commonwealth called the Philadelphia Police Lieutenant who ran the checkpoint to testify. The lieutenant testified that to determine the location of the checkpoint in question, he tabulated all DUI-related incidents in Philadelphia over the previous two years and broke those figures down by DUI-related incidents per police district. He found that the 25th police district, which is 2.3 square miles, had the most DUIs in the city during that period.
He did not have any data specific to the location of the checkpoint. However, he testified that he selected that location because it is one of the only locations in the district which would be large enough and safe enough to conduct a checkpoint involving eighteen police officers, two police cruisers, and one large processing center the size of a fire truck. He also testified that the 300 block of East Allegheny Ave is a main vein of travel within the 25th district.
The Motion to Suppress and Appeal
The Philadelphia Municipal Court granted the motion to suppress, finding that existing case law required the officer to have data specific to the location of the checkpoint in order to avoid a constitutional violation. The Commonwealth appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, and the motions court judge in the Court of Common Pleas affirmed the order granting the motion to suppress. The Commonwealth then appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the decision of the Municipal Court and ruled that the motion to suppress should not have been granted. The Court noted that DUI checkpoints are governed by the “Tarbert/Blouse” guidelines. Pursuant to those guidelines, the Commonwealth must be able to show that the checkpoint satisfied five requirements in order to be constitutional.
Those requirements are:
vehicle stops must be brief and must not entail a physical search;
there must be sufficient warning of the existence of the checkpoint;
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;
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
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.
Further, substantial compliance with the guidelines is all that is require in order to minimize the intrusiveness of a roadblock seizure to a constitutionally acceptable level.
The Court’s Opinion
The Court found that Philadelphia Police substantially complied with these rules. The officer testified that he selected the route based on statistical data demonstrating that the district in question accounted for the highest rate of DUI arrests in the city, and that Allegheny Avenue was the main avenue of East-West travel in the district. He also considered traffic volume and safety factors when selecting the location of the checkpoint. The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the police should have had some kind of data relating specifically to Allegheny Avenue. Instead, the Court reasoned that the relatively high rate of DUIs in that district coupled with the safety considerations considered by the lieutenant made the selection of that location constitutional.
Unfortunately, this decision amounts to carte blanche for the police to establish a checkpoint anytime and anywhere. Previous decisions such as Commonwealth v. Blee and Commonwealth v. Garibay required actual numbers as to how many DUIs occurred on the street selected for the checkpoint. This opinion lets the police simply establish a checkpoint in any district where they can testify that the district has a large number of DUIs and on any road that could be characterized as a busy road. The opinion simply ignores the prior case law, and hopefully it will be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Hopefully, this opinion may be limited to the 25th District as that is the only district where police would be able to claim that the district has the highest number of DUIs. In other districts, police may still be required to have more information before establishing a checkpoint. Each DUI case involving a checkpoint should still be carefully evaluated for a potential “checkpoint motion” as well as a motion to suppress based on other grounds such as an illegal arrest or the failure to provide Miranda warnings.
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