Sobriety Checkpoints Are Presumptively Unconstitutional

The United States Supreme Court has made clear that checkpoint-type vehicle stops are presumptively unconstitutional – subject to certain limited exceptions.  City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 121 S. Ct. 447, 148 L.Ed.2d 333 (2000).  The Edmond court held that a checkpoint program whose primary purpose is to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing violates the Fourth Amendment. The Edmond court stated: there would be little check on the ability of the authorities to construct roadblocks for almost any conceivable law enforcement purpose.  Without drawing the line at roadblocks designed primarily to serve the general interest in crime control, the Fourth Amendment would do little to prevent such intrusions from becoming a routine part of American life.

The People Have The Burden Of Proving The Primary Purpose Of The Checkpoint At A Hearing.

The Edmond case establishes an important new threshold requirement in checkpoint cases: the People must affirmatively prove at a pretrial hearing and through an appropriate witness or witnesses, that the primary purpose for the checkpoint was not evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.

Most importantly, Edmond makes clear that the People cannot satisfy their burden of proving the primary purpose of a checkpoint simply by calling it a sobriety checkpoint; the People must prove that the stated primary purpose of the checkpoint was, in fact, its actual primary purpose.  Otherwise, law enforcement authorities would be able to establish checkpoints for virtually any purpose so long as they also included a license or sobriety check.  Edmond, 531 U.S. at 46, 121 S.Ct. at 457.

Edmond clearly indicates that, for purposes of proving the primary purpose of a checkpoint program, the testimony of a high ranking (i.e. policy making) police official is required.  Edmond, 531 U.S. at 48 stated: we caution that the primary purpose inquiry is to be conducted only at the programmatic level and is nt an invitation to probe the minds of individual officers acting at the scene.

The Evidence For Proving Primary Purpose Of The Checkpoint Must Include Testimony Of Policy Making Official At The Police Department.

To prove that the primary purpose of a particular checkpoint was truly DWI related the available evidence should include testimony from a high ranking police officeial responsible for establishing the operation and parameters of the checkpoint at a programmatic level.  It should also include documentary proof such as statistics regarding the number of vehicles pulled over for further scrutiny, the number of tickest issued, the number of arrests made, what the arrests were for, the types of evidence seized, the number of designated drivers observed, copies of literature handed out at the checkpoint.

While this is burdensome, it must be kept in mind (a) that checkpoint stops are presumptively unconstitutional, and (b) that the Supreme Court does not want such stops to become a routine part of American life.  In this regard, the Edmond court expressly recognized the challenges inherent in a primary purpose inquiry, but nonetheless found such inquiry necessary as a mans of sifting abusieve governmental conduct from that which is lawful.  Edmond, 531 U.S. at 46-47, 121 S.Ct. at 457.

New York Courts Applying Edmonds Have Held That The People’s Failure To Prove The Primary Purpose Of The Checkpoint Is A Violation Of The Fourth Amendment.

In New York, the Court of Appeals applied the Edmonds case in People v. Jackson, 99 N.Y.2d 125, 752 N.Y.S.2d 271, 782 N.E.2d 67 (2002).  In the Jackson case the court made clear that the People have the burden of establishing that the primary programmatic objective (not the subjective intent of the participating officers) for initiating a suspicionless vehicle stop procedure was not merely to further general crime control. Where the People do not prove that the primary programmatic objective was not to further general crime control, then the checkpoint is considered a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

New York Courts Require That There Be Written Guidelines Issued To The Officers Administering The Checkpoint Or It Will Be Constitutionally Invalid.

The Court of Appeals in the case of People v. Scott, 63 N.Y.2d 518, 483 N.Y.S.2d 649, 473 N.E.2d 1 (1984) held that to be constitutional, a sobriety checkpoint (1) may not intrude to an impermissible degree upon the privacy of motorists approaching the checkpoint, (2) must be maintained in accordance with a uniform procedure which affords little discretion ot operating personnel and (3) must utilize adequate precautions as to safety, lighting and fair warning of the existence of the checkpoint.

New York courts interpreting the Scott case have held that the plan for officers to follow at checkpoints must be in writing.

In People v. Richmond, 174 MIsc.2d 40, 662 N.Y.S.2d 998 (1997) the court held that the Scott case contemplates that te hpeopel operatin the roadblock will not act with unlimited discretion but rather will act pursuant to a listed criteria of the plan limiting descretion of individual officers and lessening the likelihood of arbitrary law enforcement.

In People v. Smith, 170 Misc.2d 486, 649 N.Y.S.2d 313 (1996) it was held that a checkpoint failed to meet even the most basic requirements established by the Court of Appals where there was no uniform, nonarbitrary plan and the execution of the checkpoint was left entirely to the officers on the scene to decided which vehicles to stop.

In People v. Holley, 157 Misc.2d 402, 596 N.Y.S.2d 1016 (1993) a DWI checkpoint was held unconstitutional where it failed to establish that there were any procedures in effect to limit the discretion of the individual officers operating the roadblock and where there was no proof to show that the checkpoint was part of an overall police department plan.