DUI checkpoints are the most controversial anti-DUI tool in use by Pennsylvania law enforcement today.    In Pennsylvania, a “DUI checkpoint” is “a well-marked, stationary roadblock conducted by the police for several hours at a time.  The officers on the scene make brief, suspicionless stops to check for driver intoxication, using a predetermined objective standard in determining which cars to stop.  Such roadblocks are advertised in advance and are situated at roadway locations where drunk driving is known to have occurred in the past.”  Com. v. Beaman, 583 Pa. 636, 880 A.2d 578, 579-580 (2005).  Those in favor of DUI checkpoints regard them as highly visible deterrents to drunk driving, supported by a campaign of public awareness.  Checkpoint opponents, meanwhile, argue that suspicionless stops unsupported by a belief that a driver is violating the law are in violation of constitutional protections.

What Happens at a DUI Checkpoint in PA?

If you enter a DUI checkpoint in Pennsylvania, you may be stopped by police.  The determination of which vehicles to stop cannot be based on the personal discretion of the police officer on patrol.  Rather, it must be based on administrative decisions relying on objective standards.  If your vehicle is stopped, you must open your window to speak with an officer and be advised of the nature of the stop.  The officer may ask if you’ve been drinking.  If you answer yes, or if the officer detects the odor of alcohol, then you may be asked to proceed to the second phase of the checkpoint.  There, an officer will request that you perform field sobriety tests.

If an officer requests that you take a field sobriety test or a preliminary breath test (PBT) at the checkpoint, Pennsylvania law gives you the option to refuse.  If the police ask you any questions beyond a request for your name, license, registration, or proof of insurance, then it is within your legal rights to politely decline to answer.  Don’t volunteer information without first consulting a Pennsylvania DUI lawyer.  It can be easy to inadvertently incriminate yourself by simply answering questions.  Remain polite and courteous to the police officers during this exchange.  If you are taken into police custody, you do not have the same right to refuse chemical testing once you’re back at the police station.  If you do, your license will be suspended for 12-18 months, and evidence of your refusal will be used against you at your criminal DUI trial.

If you are driving in Pennsylvania and you have an opportunity to avoid a DUI checkpoint, you may do so lawfully.  In this scenario, the police will have no basis to institute a vehicle stop, which doesn’t mean they won’t try.  Under PA law, you may make a legal U-turn or turn off onto a side road when approaching a DUI checkpoint so long as you’re making a legal driving maneuver and operating your vehicle in a normal manner.  The Pennsylvania Superior Court has held that “an officer’s mere hunch that an intoxicated motorist is seeking to avoid the checkpoint is insufficient.”  Com. v. Scavello, 703 A.2d 36, 39 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1997), aff’d, 557 Pa. 429, 734 A.2d 386 (1999).

Constitutionality of DUI Checkpoints

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of DUI checkpoints in Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz in 1990.  In Sitz, the Court held that DUI checkpoints do not constitute illegal searches and seizures, and it determined that the intrusion was justified based on the public interest in reducing incidents of DUI.  In his dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens equated DUI checkpoints to elaborate publicity stunts, pointing to available data that made clear that DUI checkpoints are largely ineffective as traffic safety tools.  Additionally, Justice Stevens expressed concern over “the citizen’s interest in freedom from suspicionless unannounced investigatory seizures.”  Michigan Dept. of State Police et al. v. Sitz et al., 496 U.S. 444, 465 (1990) (Stevens, J., dissenting).  Justice Stevens argued that any driver who had consumed a moderate amount of alcohol, “…even a sip of wine, would almost certainly have the burden of demonstrating to the officer that her driving ability was not impaired.”  Id.

Title 75 of the PA Code, at 75 Pa.C.S.A. §6308(b), has been construed to provide statutory authority for DUI checkpoints in Pennsylvania.  Since DUI checkpoints in PA are “suspicionless” stops that involve search and seizure, they are subject to the protections of the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions.  The Commonwealth bears the burden of proving the constitutionality of the checkpoint.

The constitutionality of DUI checkpoints in Pennsylvania remains widely debated.  It is fairly well-recognized that there are far more effective and practical alternatives to DUI detection, such as basic roving police patrols, but the PA Supreme Court has held that the constitutionality of checkpoints is not dependent on their effectiveness.  Beaman, 583 Pa. 636.

Guidelines for legal checkpoints

In order for a DUI checkpoint in PA to be considered legal, Pennsylvania police must substantially adhere to certain judicially created guidelines to establish and conduct a DUI checkpoint in a manner that provides a minimal intrusion into a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.  The determination of the constitutionality of a checkpoint in PA involves balancing the extent of intrusion against the promotion of the legitimate government interest in public safety.  “If the police follow specified procedures, systematic, non-discriminatory, non-arbitrary roadblocks for the purpose of insuring safety on the highways have been deemed constitutional.”  Com. v. Ziegelmeier, 454 Pa. Super. 330, 685 A.2d 559, 561 (1996).

If an experienced PA DUI lawyer can determine that a DUI checkpoint in Pennsylvania was not in full compliance with any articulated guidelines, evidence derived from the checkpoint, including the results of field sobriety and blood alcohol testing, will be suppressed.  Com. v. Worthy, 2006 PA Super 160, 903 A.2d 576 (2006), rev’d on other grounds, 598 Pa. 470, 957 A.2d 720 (2008).

Specifically, an experienced PA DUI lawyer can explore the following areas regarding the propriety of the establishment and operation of a DUI checkpoint:

  • Whether the initial vehicle stop was sufficiently brief
  • Whether advance notice of the DUI checkpoint was provided to the public
  • The identity of all persons involved in the decision to establish the checkpoint
  • Documentation, including maps and statistical breakdowns, relied upon in making the decision to conduct the checkpoint at that specific location
  • Whether there is sufficient proof of prior administrative approval for the checkpoint
  • Whether police followed articulable guidelines in determining which vehicles to stop
  • How the checkpoint was conducted (e.g., number of vehicles stopped at a given time, how initial contact was made with the driver, how determination for field sobriety testing was made)
  • Name, badge numbers, job title, police department, or other employment affiliation and training of all individuals who participated in the checkpoint

If you or a loved one has been charged with drunk driving or drugged driving resulting from an arrest at a DUI checkpoint in Pennsylvania, you should consult an experienced PA DUI lawyer as soon as possible to learn your options.  The knowledgeable DUI lawyers at The Martin Law Firm have been defending individuals charged with DUI and DUI-related offenses in Montgomery County and throughout Southeastern PA for more than 10 years.  Contact The Martin Law Firm at 215-646-3980 for a free case evaluation for your pending DUI charge based in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

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