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The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the public in general from unreasonable searches and seizures. One of the most steadfast principles of criminal law is that a police officer may not search a member of the public without probable cause to do so. However, does this mean that a driver may not be stopped at a police issued DUI roadblock or checkpoint if the officer does not have probable cause to believe that the driver is intoxicated? In Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a six to three decision, held that law enforcement sobriety checkpoints do not violate the Fourth Amendment as an unreasonable search and seizure. (Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990))
Chief Justice Rehnquist, who wrote the majority opinion, acknowledged that sobriety checkpoints infringed upon a constitutional right, but argued that the checkpoints were effective and necessary, and that the state’s interest in reducing drunk driving outweighed the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists. The opinion further stressed the importance of appropriate guidelines governing checkpoint operations, site selection, and publicity, and that the guidelines should minimize the discretion of police officers at the scene.
In 1996, the Connecticut Appellate Court reiterated the Supreme Court’s reasoning and applied the Supreme Court’s analysis to Connecticut law. In Connecticut v. Boisvert (40 Conn. App. 420 (1996)), the Connecticut Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment that roadside sobriety checkpoints do not violate the Connecticut Constitution’s provision protecting people against unreasonable search and seizure (Article First, § 7). The reasoning of the Appellate Court continues to be utilized and applied to date. See State v. Comollo, 141 Conn. App. 295 (Conn. App. Ct. Mar. 12, 2013).
When analyzing the checkpoint at issue in the case, the Appellate Court found that the initial detention of the Defendant at the checkpoint was not an arrest. To test whether the stop was reasonable, the Trial Court balanced the need to keep intoxicated drivers off the roads against the intrusiveness of roadside checkpoints. The Appellate Court then examined police procedural guidelines and conduct, and approved the Trial Court’s determination that the stop was reasonable.
The Appellate Court found persuasive the Trial Court’s determination that while a citizen’s reasonable right to privacy may not be subject to random or arbitrary intrusions merely at the whim of law enforcement, minimal intrusion in the interest of public safety may be allowed in the form of checkpoint stops when the stop is conducted pursuant to a practice embodying neutral criteria. The Trial Court found that in the traffic stop at issue, the majority of drivers were stopped for one or two minutes only, were required to answer only a few questions and produce the expected papers, and that there was no evidence of abusive or threatening conduct by the police against the individuals which were stopped. The Trial Court applied special significance to the fact that no drivers were singled out arbitrarily for investigation, and the officers in the field had no discretion whatsoever as to whom to stop. (Connecticut v. Boisvert, supra at 427).
This decision by the Connecticut Appellate Court not only substantiates the use of roadside DUI checkpoints and roadblocks, but more importantly sets forth the limitations of their usage in order to avoid their unconstitutionality.
If you have been charged with a driving while intoxicated related offense and were subject to a roadside checkpoint or roadblock, contact the experienced criminal law attorneys today at 203-221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com. We have the experience and knowledge you need at this critical juncture. We serve clients throughout Connecticut and all of Fairfield County, from Greenwich and Stamford to Westport and Bridgeport.
Sources: Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990).
State v. Boisvert, 40 Conn. App. 420 (1996).
State v. Comollo, 141 Conn. App. 295 (Conn. App. Ct. 2013).