What makes a DUI checkpoint legal in Pennsylvania?

DUI CheckpointsThe summer is almost here and so is an increased police presence on the highways and roads. This  means that at least some of us will run into a DUI checkpoint.  In Pennsylvania, the random stop of a car or other motor vehicle is unconstitutional but federal and Pennsylvania law do, however, permit them in certain situations. Pennsylvania defines a roadblock as a well-marked stationary point supervised by police where officers make a brief “without suspicion” or stop to determine a driver’s possible intoxication using a pre-determined objective standard.

While it may appear that checkpoints and roadblocks violate the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the United States Supreme Court and the Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court have found this police tactic permissible provided that the police satisfy certain requirements.   The Commonwealth, however, through the assistant district attorney, bears the burden of establishing the constitutionality of that roadblock.

Almost every case involving the constitutionality of a roadblock will cite the “Tarbert/Blouse” standard. This standard comes from two Pennsylvania Supreme Court cases which balance an individual’s constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment and Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution against Pennsylvania’s compelling interest of public safety (protecting people from drunk drivers.) The Court in both of these cases found that while roadblocks intruded upon a person’s constitutional rights, it is an acceptable level of intrusion given the state’s interest in protecting the public.

A Pennsylvania Court will find a DUI roadblock or any checkpoint constitutional if it meets the following requirements:

  1. The vehicle stop must be brief and it can’t include a search of the vehicle or its occupants
  2. Police must give advance notice (signs, notices through the media, ie: newspaper, advertisements)
  3. Police administration must make the decision to schedule the roadblock and police officers can’t simply schedule it on their own
  4. The location and time of the roadblock must be based on a history of drunk driving incidents and arrests in that location
  5. The “stop criteria” must be based on an objective standard created by police administration and not individual patrol officers

A driver is legally permitted to avoid a roadblock and police can’t stop a car simply based on the belief that a driver is avoiding them. If the police officer, however, believes that the driver is purposely avoiding them and the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the motorist is either in violation of Pennsylvania’s vehicle code or the motorist is committing a crime due to the car’s sudden change of direction, he can stop it.

Roadblocks create a variety of pre-trial issues for your attorney to argue in your case. If your attorney doesn’t attack these issues and focus argument on them, he/she simply doesn’t understand the law. A pre-trial motion to suppress evidence discovered after a stop or arrest at a roadblock is a powerful defense tool. If the motion is successful, the prosecution won’t be able to use critical pieces of evidence against you at trial. The most important piece of evidence at a DUI trial are the results from a chemical test (blood or breath). Remember that there are 9 types of DUI charges in the Commonwealth and the severity of these drunk driving charges depend on a person’s BAC level. A motion to suppress may also focus on the results of a field sobriety test given prior to an arrest.

For more information on DUI in Pennsylvania, read my book—5 Ways to Fight & Win your Pennsylvania DUI case. I’m almost finished the second edition of this book and look for this expanded version later this month!