The Boston Herald published an interesting article today that concluded that sobriety checkpoints (also known as roadblocks) conducted in Lowell result in more OUI arrests than any other checkpoint in the state.
The Herald reviewed data from five years’ worth of checkpoints conducted by the Massachusetts State Police. The purpose of the checkpoints is to arrest people who are operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The Herald reported that since January of 2009, state troopers have arrested 343 drivers at checkpoints conducted in Lowell. Many of those checkpoints happened on Thorndike Street, and troopers arrested an average of 12.7 drivers during every checkpoint. Thorndike Street is a busy area of the city, with close access to the Lowell Connector and Routes 3 and 495. Checkpoints typically last for a couple of hours beginning at midnight.
The United States Supreme Court and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court have ruled that sobriety checkpoints are constitutional, as long as they are conducted pursuant to a strict set of guidelines. The Supreme Judicial Court has said that checkpoints may only be used to investigate impaired driving; however, if a police officer discovers contraband during an otherwise legitimate roadblock stop, the contraband can be used to charge the driver with additional non-alcohol related crimes. The written guidelines are required to be specific and well-defined.
Roadblocks typically happen like this: a team of police officers descend upon an area with regular traffic. The officers (called screeners) usually stop every car and have a brief conversation with the driver. The officers apologize for the inconvenience of delaying the driver and look for signs of alcohol consumption. These signs include slurred speech, glassy or bloodshot eyes, and the smell of alcohol coming from the driver’s breath. If the screener identifies any evidence of alcohol consumption, he will order the driver to pull into a “pit” area. The screener is not permitted to ask the driver whether he has been drinking unless the screener has some evidence based on his observations that the defendant has consumed alcohol. Once the driver parks in the pit, he will be asked to get out of his car and submit to a series of field sobriety tests. If the driver fails the field sobriety tests, he will be asked to take a Breathalyzer test.
Roadblock OUI cases are often vulnerable to motions to suppress. Spring & Spring has won many motions to suppress in checkpoint cases, arguing two different theories. The first category of cases involves the guidelines themselves. If they are vague about what the screener may say to the drivers, we have successfully argued that the guidelines are unconstitutional and therefore any arrest that resulted from the guidelines must be suppressed. The guidelines must be so specific that the officers do not have any discretion whatsoever in administering them. The second category of cases involves the police officers’ execution of the roadblock. Even if the guidelines are constitutional, the officers must follow them precisely. In many cases, the screening officer will not write a police report. Therefore, at a motion to suppress hearing, the screener will not remember why he sent the defendant into the pit area. If the screener cannot specifically remember the defendant (on a night when he might have spoken to hundreds of drivers), then the judge cannot conclude that the screener’s decision to send the car into the pit was constitutional. We have won motions to suppress on this very fact pattern.
There is no question that sobriety checkpoints are dangerous to drivers who have consumed any amount of alcohol before driving. However, these cases are often winnable. If you were arrested at a sobriety checkpoint, you should speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately.