The Facts: Sobriety Roadblocks as a DWI Enforcement Tool

November 10, 2011


If you’ve ever been driving home late at night only to find yourself in the middle of a surprise traffic jam in which you then had to wait for a quarter of an hour so a police officer could shine a flashlight into your weary yet sober eyes, you have been a part of a DWI checkpoint. Massachusetts sobriety roadblocks and New Hampshire sobriety roadblocks are permitted under the laws of each state, and both must conform to strict operational guidelines to be legal. The plans must be designed to limit intrusiveness, delay, surprise and fear among the effected motorists. New Hampshire DWI Sobriety Checkpoint/Roadblocks are approved only after review of the law enforcement agency’s application by a Superior Court Judge. The Superior Court Order Authorizing a checkpoint and Part 1, Article 19 of the New Hampshire Constitution require compliance with the operational plan in order for the sobriety checkpoint to be a permissible seizure. State v. Koppel, 127 N.H. 286 (1985) and Opinion of the Justices, 128 N.H. 14 9 (1986). Massachusetts DUI Sobriety Checkpoint/Roadblocks must strictly adhere to a neutral operational plan that limits individual officer discretion in compliance with recent Court decisions. “The reasonableness of such seizures depends on a balance between the public interest and the individual’s right to personal security free from arbitrary interference by law officers.” Commonwealth v. McGeoghegan, 389 Mass. 137, 139 (1983).

For those who’ve never found themselves at a DWI checkpoint, the usual procedure involves closing off much of the roadway to narrow the field of traffic for the purposes of speaking with each driver on the road. When a driver reaches the DWI checkpoint, they may be asked to produce their license and registration and will generally be asked about where they are coming from, along with where they are headed. Further questions can include “Have you been drinking tonight?” and “Is there any alcohol in the vehicle?” If a police officer suspects a driver has been drinking or is under the influence of drugs, the driver will be asked to drive to a designated area off the main roadway to perform Standardized Field Sobriety Tests and to submit to breath tests or blood tests. The question in every Roadblock case is whether the screening officer exceeded the parameters of allowable initial inquiry or questioning before furthering the investigation and whether neutral, non-arbitrary operational plans for the checkpoints were strictly adhered to. “We therefore leave to the judge the factual question whether the initial screening officer who stopped the defendant made inquiry of him that exceeded the parameters established in Major Concannon’s directive.” Commonwealth v. Murphy, 454 Mass. 318 (2009).

It all sounds innocuous apart from the inconvenience of it all, and many people justify their support of sobriety roadblocks by saying that states with sobriety roadblocks have lower incidences of drunk driving fatalities. This, however is entirely untrue. Sarah Longwell of the News-Reader of Missouri conducted a study to determine if roadblocks effectively deter drunk driving and found that states that conduct DWI roadblocks do not have a lower rate of DUI fatalities. Drunk Driving statistics in Massachusetts are consistent with her findings. It is this attorney’s experience that the regular application of roadblock sobriety checkpoints over the past two (2) years in the City of Lowell, Massachusetts, on a bi-monthly basis, has had no deterrent effect on drunk driving, in fact the number of OUI arrests at these roadblocks is consistent, if not increasing over time.

So why are Massachusetts sobriety roadblocks and New Hampshire sobriety roadblocks still performed? Pressure to crack down on drunk driving from special interest groups is one reason. Another may be that the U.S. Supreme Court has found DWI checkpoints to be constitutionally permissible even though they would appear to violate the Fourth Amendment. And lastly, because people generally believe that any action taken to curb drunk driving must be effective, even when studies have shown that roadblocks tend not to lead to arrests.

If you have been charged with a DWI infraction as the result of a sobriety roadblock, it is important that you work with an attorney who understands the complex legal issues surrounding this practice. Challenging a DWI checkpoint arrest can involve looking at the unconstitutional nature of the practice, the training of the officers involved, probable cause, the effectiveness of roadblocks, and other factors. It is typical in a roadblock DWI case that there are more grounds to challenge a stop, seizure and arrest, even more so than in other DWI cases.

DWI attorney Michael Bowser has years of experience successfully defending those accused of drunk driving in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and challenging the validity and constitutionality of Police Sobriety Checkpoint Roadblocks. Call Attorney Michael Bowser today at 1-888-5BOWSER to discuss DUI laws and your individual circumstances.

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