Earlier this year, interim Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced that his office would be conducting at least one DUI Checkpoint per month in 2012. Our office has found that Gualtieri has followed through with his promise. His focus on impaired drivers is in stark contrast to previous years when budgetary cuts caused a significant drop in enforcement. (See our earlier blog: Pinellas County DUI Arrests Slashed by Fifty Percent.)
Since this announcement, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has conducted a number of DUI Checkpoints. The location of these checkpoints has typically been the heavily trafficked areas of US 19 North in Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Palm Harbor.
Are DUI Check Points Legal?
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects citizens against warrantless searches or seizures. A seizure can be characterized as a stop of your automobile. However, a law enforcement officer may stop a citizen without a warrant if he or she observes a violation of Florida’s traffic laws or has a “reasonable suspicion” that the individual committed a crime, is committing a crime, or is about to commit a crime.
So how is it that a police officer can lawfully stop and detain a motorist at a DUI Checkpoint where he has not seen any violations of Florida’s traffic laws nor observed any conduct prior to the stop suggesting the driver was involved in unlawful activity? This issue has of course been raised in the appellate courts. Both the United States and Florida Supreme Courts have deemed DUI Checkpoints constitutional by finding that the government’s interest in deterring impaired driving “outweighs” the intrusion to the public. In so finding, the United States Supreme Court considered three factors:
1) What is the legitimate government interest that will be served by the roadblock?
2) What is the degree to which the seizure will benefit that public interest?
3) What is the severity of the intrusion to the public?
A Valid DUI Checkpoint Must Eliminate Discretionary Police Conduct
To limit the intrusion to the public, Florida Courts have found that law enforcement must abide by written guidelines that limit the discretion of the officers in the field to prevent arbitrary enforcement. (See our earlier blog: DUI Roadblocks and Sobriety Checkpoints in Pinellas County, Florida.)
Recently, the Second District Court of Appeal reinforced this requirement by stating:
“The requirement of written guidelines is not merely a formality. Rather, it is the method this Court and others have chosen to ensure that the police do not act with unbridled discretion in exercising the power to stop and restrain citizens who have manifested no conduct that would otherwise justify an intrusion on a citizen's liberty. In this country the police are not vested with the general authority to set up "routine" roadblocks at any time or place. Rather, law enforcement was placed on notice by our holding in Jones that the stopping and detaining of a citizen is a serious matter that requires particularized advance planning and direction and strict compliance thereafter.”
Deviation from the Written Guidelines Can Result in Dismissal of the DUI Charge
Where a DUI Roadblock plan allowed the supervising deputy discretion to “adjust” the written guidelines while conducting the checkpoint, the Court found that stops related to that plan were unconstitutional. See Guy v. State, 993 So.2d 77 (Fla. 2d DCA 2008). Likewise, a checkpoint was unlawful where the written guidelines failed to address the criteria to be considered by the checkpoint supervisor in making a determination to adjust the frequency of traffic stops. State v. Luke, 14 Fla. L. Weekly Supp. 882 (Fla. Nassau Cty. Ct. July 2, 2007). Even if a DUI roadblock is started before the time that it was scheduled to start, the subsequent stop of an automobile at the checkpoint is unlawful. Campbell v. State, 679 So.2d 1168 (Fla. 1996).
Are Pinellas County DUI Checkpoints More Effective in “benefiting the public interest” then Routine Patrols?
Our office has reviewed the results of some recent Pinellas County Checkpoints and uncovered the following Statistics:
· December 16, 2011 DUI Checkpoint conducted at 370 Alt. 19 in Palm Harbor netted six (6) DUI arrests;
· December 17, 2011 DUI Checkpoint conducted at 26996 US Highway 19 North in Clearwater resulted in only four (4) arrests for DUI; and
· April 27, 2012 DUI Checkpoint conducted at 4501 66th Street North, Kenneth City, FL 33709 resulted in only four (4) DUI arrests.
To put these checkpoint figures in perspective, consider the following routine patrol statistics:
· On December 9, 2011, the Friday before the December 16th DUI Checkpoint, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office alone made ten (10) DUI arrests;
· On December 10, 2011, the Saturday before the December 16th Checkpoint, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office made nine (9) DUI arrests;
One might argue that law enforcement’s time is more effective in enforcing DUI laws when the police personnel are on routine patrol or in the alternative, conducting a “Wolfpack” operation. (A “Wolfpack” is a saturation of Sheriff’s Deputies patrolling the streets of Pinellas County specifically looking for persons who appear to be impaired while driving.) Keep in mind, that for an officer to conduct a traffic stop while performing his duties associated with a “Wolfpack,” he or she must first observe a traffic violation or have a reasonable suspicion that the motorist has committed a crime. It should be pointed out that our office discovered that in a recent DUI Wolfpack operation, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office made seven (7) DUI arrests.
Carefully Examining the Checkpoint in Your Case
Our firm is well-versed in defending the rights of clients arrested at DUI Checkpoints. it is a standard practice of our DUI Defense team to obtain a copy of the written guidelines for the DUI Roadblock via a “public records request” to the law enforcement agency that conducted the stop. At times our careful review of these guidelines will reveal flaws in the plan itself, or in how the DUI checkpoint written operational plan was carried out. Any issues associated with the sufficiency of the written guidelines or the administration of the DUI Checkpoint may result in your DUI Charge being dismissed or the State agreeing to reduce your charge from a DUI to a Reckless Driving.
There are a number of important issues that should be evaluated in deciding whether a roadblock stop was constitutional:
- Did the DUI roadblock begin and end at the times specified in the written plan?
- Did the written DUI checkpoint plan sufficiently limit law enforcement’s discretion in selecting which vehicles were to be stopped?
- Did each officer at the DUI checkpoint have limited discretion in the duties they were assigned and in the duties that they carried out?
- Were some officers required to carry out more than one duty assignment?
- Did the written plan allow for more than one duty to be assigned to a single officer?
- Did the written DUI roadblock plan specifically indicate how the roadblock was to be staffed and by what agencies?
- Were any of the duty assignments specified by the written plan left vacant at the scene?
- Was there any officer who carried out a duty that wasn’t described in the plan at all?
- Did law enforcement have limited discretion to call additional officers to the scene or to expand the scope of the investigation after stopping a vehicle?
If you have been stopped or arrested at a DUI Checkpoint, these are important questions that must be answered. If any question on this list can be answered “No” there is a potential constitutional problem with the roadblock. If law enforcement failed to strictly comply with the plan or exercised too much discretion, Florida law may very well mandate the exclusion of any evidence gathered against you. You need an experienced and knowledgeable attorney to examine your case and to determine if the stop of your vehicle at a DUI checkpoint was legal.
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