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Police Roadblocks: Laws and Limitations

The Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement agencies can only set up roadblocks for "special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement." (City of Indianapolis v. Edmond).

At a police roadblock, officers stop and assess all or some motor vehicles and drivers at the checkpoint.

Police officers cannot set up roadblocks only to assist in the normal process of law enforcement, crime prevention, and traffic safety. There must be a unique circumstance that justifies the intrusion into the lives of motorists that a roadblock entails.

To justify these types of traffic stops, the following criteria must be met:

  • The state must have a strong interest in that purpose
  • The roadblock must be an effective way to achieve that purpose
  • The roadblock cannot excessively intrude on the privacy of innocent individuals stopped

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court hasn't offered clear guidance about what constitutes a "special need" that justifies a police roadblock or checkpoint. Instead, police departments must examine the court's reasoning in situations where the Court has approved roadblocks. Despite this, disputes often arise about the constitutionality of police checkpoints.

Background: The Fourth Amendment

When examining a roadblock to determine its legality, the court must hold it up to the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects the right of the people to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. It also requires probable cause for warrants for searches and seizures.

In general, searches and seizures usually require a warrant supported by probable cause. In a few circumstances, officers can conduct searches and seizures without a warrant as long as the search or seizure is reasonable. Usually, the reasonableness requirement is satisfied by the existence of probable cause.

In the context of roadblocks and checkpoints, the Supreme Court has ruled that a balancing test is more appropriate for determining the reasonableness of a search or seizure than the probable cause standard.

This balancing test weighs the state's interest in the goal of the roadblock against its effectiveness in achieving that goal and the intrusion of the roadblock on an individual's privacy.

Border Security and Police Roadblocks

The Supreme Court first approved law enforcement roadblocks in a case involving the Border Patrol's practice of stopping traffic on major highways. The Border Patrol's intent with these stops was to prevent the trafficking of undocumented immigrants. (U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte). The court also first introduced the idea of a balancing test for roadblocks here.

The court found that the federal government had a strong interest in securing the nation's borders. It also found the roadblock was an effective way to determine if vehicles contained undocumented immigrants. They found that the roadblock was neither excessively intrusive on privacy rights nor disruptive of traffic flows.

Drunk Driving and Police Roadblocks

A widely used type of police roadblock is sobriety checkpoints, or DUI checkpoints. These check for drivers who may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Officers typically use field sobriety tests or breathalyzer devices to identify impaired drivers. Drivers can be issued a DUI (Driving Under the Influence) or DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) at sobriety checkpoints.

Officers focus on stopping vehicles randomly at these checkpoints. For example, they may stop every 10th motor vehicle to check for an intoxicated driver. This random method reduces the chance of profiling based on age, race, or ethnicity. Law enforcement may also stop other vehicles if there is a reasonable suspicion of impairment.

Is it legal to turn around to avoid a sobriety checkpoint? It depends on the traffic maneuver and your driving. While it is not illegal to turn around at a DUI checkpoint, you must comply with local traffic laws. However, turning around at a DUI checkpoint can attract an officer's attention and could be considered as cause to pull you over. Officers may also radio nearby law enforcement to assess if a stop outside the checkpoint is warranted.

The U.S. Supreme Court also applied the balancing test to assess the legality of drunk-driving checkpoints in Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz. The court found that the state had a strong interest in preventing drunk-driving injuries and deaths. The court noted that roadblocks were an effective way of identifying drunk drivers and that the intrusion on sober motorists was minimal.

Specific Crimes and Police Roadblocks

The Supreme Court also ruled that law enforcement agencies can use roadblocks to help solve specific crimes. In Illinois v. Lidster, the court held that a police checkpoint was permissible to gain information about a hit-and-run accident that occurred at the same location and time as the checkpoint.

But using checkpoints and roadblocks to help combat crime generally violates the Fourth Amendment. In City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, the court struck down running checkpoints to intercept illegal drugs. It ruled that the program's primary purpose was no different from general crime control.

State Constitutions

Some state constitutions have stricter search and seizure rules than the federal Constitution. Others allow more flexibility for law enforcement if certain procedural safeguards are met. The interpretation and application of state constitutions can vary from one jurisdiction to another. This leads to differences in how police roadblocks are conducted and regulated across states.

State constitutions cannot offer less protection for state citizens than the federal Constitution. However, they can offer more protection.

Certain states might not allow roadblocks at all, even in the situations outlined above. Several states have prohibited drunk-driving checkpoints based on their state constitution.

Cited at a Police Roadblock? Get Legal Advice

Navigating police roadblocks and DUI checkpoints can be confusing. If you are experiencing legal issues as a result of a police roadblock, you can consult with an experienced DUI or traffic ticket attorney. An attorney knowledgeable of the law in your area can review the circumstances of the checkpoint and your citation.

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