It is frustrating and embarrassing to be arrested in a DUI roadblock, or “sobriety checkpoint”, as they call them by legal definition. But the good news is that, generally, these cases can be easier to win in court that typical OUI stops where the police pull you over specifically and individually.
The fact that you were stopped at a road block raises some constitutional issues, and you can just challenge the validity of the checkpoint.
- First, they police must follow certain very specific legal guidelines and prove that the road block is valid in the first place.
- Secondly, even if the road block is valid, the police have to prove that you were waved into the secondary area in accordance with the rules.
How field sobriety checkpoints operate under the law in Massachusetts
- They must be publicly “announced” in advance.
- The purpose for the checkpoint must be explicit.
- The procedure for cars they designate to investigate and interrogate must be specific and selected without any officer’s discretion.
The standard, boilerplate police notification language is as follows:
The purpose is to further educate the motoring public and strengthen the public’s awareness to the need of detecting and removing those motorists who operate under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs from our roadways. It will be operated during varied hours, the selection of vehicles will not be arbitrary, safety will be assured, and any inconveniences to motorists will be minimized with advance notice to reduce fear and anxiety.
In this context, “the selection of the vehicles will not be arbitrary” is a strange way of saying you are not being selected “based on random choice or personal whim” of an officer, but by a specific, unbiased procedure, e.g., “every 4th vehicle”. Legalistically, random is defined as unknowable, or without definitive aim or purpose. Colloquially, we use the word random to mean not selected specifically by choice.
The bottom line is, the cops can’t just pick cars whichever cars they want to investigate out of the checkpoint. The procedure must be explicit.
ALERT: Massachusetts State Police will hold a Sobriety Checkpoint in an undisclosed Hampden County location sometime tonight. pic.twitter.com/f5IU9VflW5
— Only In Boston (@OnlyInBOS) December 23, 2016
Winning an OUI case from after a field sobriety checkpoint stop and subsequent arrest
These cases are challenged by either:
- Contesting the validity of the stop, or the roadblock procedures used in your case
- Fighting the case at trial based on the knowledge that you did nothing wrong, and the police never saw you do anything wrong before questioning you.
We have won cases with both strategies.
Our firm had a case in the Framingham District Court where we challenged the validity of the stop, saying that they didn’t have probable cause to waive the client into the second area. That case ended up being dismissed. We also had a similar case in the Brighton District Court, and that case ended up being dismissed as well.
Under roadblock procedures, all cars on a particular road are funneled through the stopping area. But only a certain number of vehicles, designated at “random”, are waived into the 2nd area for general questioning. And it MUST BE NOT arbitrarily chosen for the stop to be allowed under the Massachusetts Constitution, as determined by the Supreme Judicial Court.
If they just picked out cars from the line that looked “suspicious”, that would be considered essentially an illegal stop and a violation of your rights. It’s illegal because the police are not allowed to wander around and question people under threat of arrest without any probable cause. We don’t live in a police state.
So what do these rules mean? In a road block case, the Commonwealth must admit that there was absolutely nothing wrong with your driving! They didn’t stop you because you were weaving or driving erratically, missed a stop sign or committed any other traffic infractions, or were in an accident. It was a random stop.
photo credit: versageek
Before they pulled you over, they had absolutely no evidence or reason to believe that you were impaired. So that fact can make these charges much easier to fight and win.
Juries are often sympathetic to people who are pulled over at a road block because they have done nothing wrong. Anybody can be driving down the street and have had 1 or 2 drinks and can be pulled over. In these cases, many officers will arrest anyone with a slight amount of alcohol on their breath, just because they were randomly stopped. Jurors certainly don’t want to be in that position.
For these reasons, I have beaten quite a few DUI cases with roadblocks in court.
Is a DUI Roadblock Constitutional in Massachusetts?
Yes, both the US Supreme Court and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court say they are, under very specific guidelines.
The US Supreme Court has ruled that police operated alcohol sobriety checkpoints are in the public interest in preventing alcohol-related accidents and injuries.
In Massachusetts, the SJC has set specific guidelines necessary to make these stops constitutional based on several decisions from the 1980s. These rules are quite odd and illogical, but they include:
- The public must be “notified” in advance of the “location”. That’s why you see ridiculous press releases from the State police that say “sobriety checkpoints will be held in Middlesex County during the hours of 8pm to 1am this weekend. As if that notification has any value or meaning, and is somehow actionable. Middlesex County is over 800 square miles! Worcester County is over 1500 square miles.
- The selection of who to stop must have predefined rules. They can’t choose who to stop and inspect based on an officer’s suspicions, but they can stop every 3rd car if that’s the process and plan as defined ahead of time. This is good for defendants, as I said above, since they have to go out of their way to state that you weren’t questioned based on any suspicion at all, but based on predefined rules.
- The site must be a “problem area”, whatever that means. Usually, an area where a previous drunk driving incident or arrest has happened. But the public likely doesn’t know where these problem areas are (as theoretically required under the location notification rules) unless they’ve seen where these checkpoints have been posted before. In Suffolk county in Boston, a popular spot is on Morrisey Boulevard or at Neponset Circle.
Are Roadblocks a Good Use of Police Manpower?
There is an open question as to whether these road block cases are an effective way to deal with drunk driving at all. Is this really the best use of police resources to benefit public safety?
Many experts think that roaming patrols are more effective at stopping drunk drivers. Officers who are stopping everybody in a particular spot are not out on the road looking for truly dangerous or hazardous drivers. These catchall checkpoints are more likely to stop people who made an innocent mistake and weren’t doing any harm.
Call me now for a free consultation on your Massachusetts OUI case, in any MA district court.
Attorney Russell Matson
Massachusetts Drunk Driving Defense Lawyer
(781)380-7730 – 24 hours a day