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Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Constitutionality of Sobriety Checkpoint in Brighton

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today ruled that a sobriety roadblock conducted in Brighton in 2016 passed constitutional muster.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Emerton

The defendant was driving on Soldiers Field Road in Brighton on a May evening in 2016 when he encountered a sobriety checkpoint being run by the Massachusetts State Police.  The defendant spoke to a sergeant at the initial screening area and admitted he had been drinking.  The sergeant noticed the defendant had glassy, red eyes and smelled like an alcoholic beverage.  The defendant was directed to a secondary screening area where he was more closely examined by other troopers, resulting in his arrest for operating under the influence of alcohol (fourth offense).  The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence gleaned from his stop and seizure, arguing the checkpoint had not been administered in a constitutional manner.  A Boston Municipal Court (BMC) judge agreed the checkpoint was unconstitutional and allowed the defendant’s motion.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court reversed.

Sobriety checkpoints constitute the unusual situation in Massachusetts where police officers are permitted to stop and seize motorists without having probable cause, or even reasonable suspicion, that criminal conduct has occurred.  The United States Supreme Court and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court have reasoned that the strong public interest in reducing the number of people who are killed or hurt by drunk drivers justifies briefly stopping and seizing large numbers of drivers who aren’t breaking the law, in order to identify and arrest the minority of drivers who are operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  However, in order to be constitutional, the checkpoints must satisfy a stringent set of rules.  One of the rules involves the location of the checkpoint – it needs to be in an area where prior OUI arrests or accidents have occurred.  The BMC judge concluded the statistical evidence presented by the State Police at the motion to suppress hearing did not establish Soldiers Field Road was sufficiently populated by motorists who were driving under the influence of alcohol.  The Appeals Court disagreed.

The State Police determined in the two years prior to the administration of the roadblock in this case, there had been 83 arrests on Soldiers Field Road (or the roads leading onto Soldiers Field Road).  The BMC judge had three issues with the location (and timing) of the roadblock.  According to the judge: there was no evidence that more motorists would drive impaired during the middle of a weekend night (which is when the roadblock was conducted); there was no justification for the roadblock to occur on Soldiers Field Road (instead of any of the other nearby roads); and the 83 arrests during the two years preceding the roadblock weren’t enough to establish Soldiers Field Road is a “problem area.”  With respect to the timing issue, the Appeals Court held it was reasonable for the State Police to think there would be at least as many (if not more) drunk drivers on the road in the middle of a Saturday night, and it was not necessary for the Commonwealth to prove the precise time of day (or day of week) when most arrests and accidents occur.  The Appeals Court also ruled the location of the roadblock was based on fresh and reliable data (collected over the two years immediately prior to the roadblock), and the number of arrests (approximately three and a half per month) established that Soldiers Field Road constituted a “problem area.”  The defendant’s case will be remanded to the BMC for trial.

Roadblock cases involve highly technical legal issues that should be handled by experienced criminal defense attorneys.  Attorney Chris Spring has successfully defended roadblock cases and is available for a free consultation.

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