Sobriety Checkpoints

There has been much debate in previous years that checking stations are a violation of a person’s 4th Amendments rights, or the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. North Carolina believes, however, that the importance of preventing drinking and driving among other motor vehicle code violations outweighs the_DSC4538 “degree of intrusion” of people in the privacy of their vehicles. But in order to convict a person of Driving While Impaired beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s not only important for the State to meet its burden of proof but the checkpoint must also be constitutionally valid. So for the purposes of education, I will touch on the fundamentals of a valid checkpoint from a Raleigh DWI defense attorney perspective. 

Your first step in determining if a checkpoint case is beatable is to make sure you have a firm understanding of the case and that the enforcement agency is following the “Black Letter Law,” or the North Carolina General Statute. According to N.C.G.S. 20-16.3A,

“Law enforcement agencies may conduct checking stations and roadblocks but they must designate in advance the pattern for stopping vehicles and for requesting drivers that are stopped to produce their driver’s license, registration, or insurance information. They must also operate under a written policy, which provides guidelines for the pattern. During operation of the checkpoint, the public must be made aware that a checking station is being operated by having, at a minimum, one law enforcement vehicle with its blue light in operation. Additionally, checkpoints should be randomly placed, avoiding placing checkpoints repeatedly in the same location.”

These guidelines provide a rubric for the enforcement agency to follow. A good defense attorney should have a checklist accounting for these elements when reading through the written policy provided by the arresting agency in order to see if there is any room to challenge the constitutionality.

So for the sake of argument, let’s assume that your case involves a checkpoint that seems to satisfy the North Carolina standard. You now need to consider the common law ruling in the North Carolina case State v. Rose, which changed the way checkpoints are conducted. The Rose case stresses, “checkpoints are presumptively unreasonable and the State is required to prove:

  1. The checkpoint was created for a valid programmatic purpose.
  2. The Officers on the scene were under supervisory control and did not have unfettered discretion, AND
  3. The placement and methodology of the checkpoint was reasonably related to the purpose of the checkpoint. (NC. v. Rose, 170 N.C. App. at 289, 612 S.E.2d).

If the court finds that police had a legitimate primary purpose for conducting the checkpoint the court must then judge the “reasonableness of the checkpoint.” [Quoting State v. Veazey 191 N.C. App. 181, 184, 662 S.E.2d 683, 686 (2008)] In deciding this balance, the court must: (1) “weigh the gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure; (2) the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest; and (3) the severity of the interference with individual liberty.” In order to meet its burden of proof that the checkpoint was valid, the trial court must either examine the evidence or rely on the testifying police officer’s assertion of a legitimate primary purpose.

This discussion, although seemingly complex, touches on the very specific rules and regulations of a checkpoint in order to demonstrate how the Court addresses the issue of search or seizure being unreasonable under the 4th amendment. The Court has never approved a checkpoint program whose primary purpose was to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing. (Quoting Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 663) Any checkpoint plan that seems to be favorable to a general deterrence is unconstitutional because would constitute an unreasonable search and seizure and should not be enforceable by the State.








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