A DUI checkpoint is a planned event in which police officers block off all or a portion of a road and stop some or all drivers as they pass through to check for signs of intoxication. It works effectively as a net of sorts, to scoop up as many drunk drivers as possible in one fell swoop. But is it legal? Well, that depends on a number of factors. The U.S. Constitution limits the police’s ability to randomly stop folks without suspicion, and state laws also govern police operations. Although many police departments have their own rules about checkpoints, a recent West Virginia Supreme Court case shows that the cops may be able to disregard some of those rules if they choose.
Mr. Pettit was charged with DUI in October 2010 after being stopped at a sobriety checkpoint on Route 60 in Greenbrier County. According to the Court, Pettit admitted that he had been drinking after a police officer noticed that his speech was slurred and his eyes were glassy. He failed a series of field sobriety tests, as well as a preliminary breath test. A second test performed at the police station showed that Pettit’s blood alcohol content was .157, nearly twice the legal limit. The Department of Motor Vehicles later revoked Pettit’s driver’s license.
As the Court later recalled, it turns out that the state police department violated a number of its guidelines for conducting a checkpoint that are published in a police operations manual. Although the police department did publish a notice of the checkpoint in a local newspaper, it didn’t contact the Greenbrier County Prosecutor’s Office to assist in planning the checkpoint. In addition, the cops changed the location of the checkpoint, moving it about three miles closer to town and changing the side of the road on which the checkpoint occurred. The Police Chief later explained that he made the move because the department was shorthanded, and in order to allow officers participating in the checkpoint to respond to other calls if necessary. The chief also acknowledged that the department operated the checkpoint with five officers, rather than the seven cops recommended in the manual.
The Office of Administrative Hearings reversed the DMV’s revocation of Pettit’s license. The OAH said Pettit’s arrest was unlawful because the police had significantly deviated from their guidelines in operating the checkpoint. It noted in particular that the cops hadn’t consulted the prosecutor’s office and had moved the location after it was printed in the local paper.
The Supreme Court disagreed. While the police violated their own guidelines, the court said there was no evidence that they actually violated a federal or state law in operating the checkpoint. “The Supreme Court has never held that the federal constitution requires that a county prosecutor approve a sobriety checkpoint before the checkpoint is conducted, that a checkpoint cannot be moved after it is publicly announced to be held at a specific location, or that a specific number of police officers must work a sobriety checkpoint,” the Court said. “In addition, this Court is unaware of any statute or State rule that contains these requirements, and this Court never has held that the predetermined guidelines governing sobriety checkpoints must contain these requirements.”
The Court then turned to a balancing test developed in a 2009 case called State v. Sigler. That test required the Court to consider the public concern addressed by the checkpoint, the likelihood that the checkpoint would serve that public interest, and the extent to which the checkpoint interferes with individual liberty. Despite disregarding parts of the manual, the Court said the police didn’t unreasonably interfere with Pettit’s liberty. “The evidence indicates that the officer in charge planned the sobriety checkpoint in advance in substantial compliance with the predetermined guidelines,” the Court said. It also found that the police chief articulated a good reason for moving the checkpoint closer to town.
As a result, the Court reversed the OAH’s decision and ordered that Pettit’s license be revoked.
If you or a loved one has been charged with driving under the influence, the West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm can help. Our firm has been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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