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Pennsylvania Sobriety Checkpoints Must Follow Specific Rules

The fight against drunk driving has led to tougher penalties and more aggressive detection tactics by law enforcement. Many police departments conduct sobriety checkpoints as a way to reduce the number of drunk drivers on the roads. Pennsylvania courts have had to decide if sobriety checkpoints were valid under the state and federal constitution.

The constitutionality of roadblocks was originally challenged in a 1987 case, Commonwealth v. Tarbet. The Tarbet court held that as long as law enforcement followed specific rules, the checkpoints would be allowed to proceed. But after laying out all of the necessary requirements, the court held that police exceeded the powers granted to them by statute, and reversed Tarbet's DUI conviction.

The Pennsylvania legislature then rewrote the sobriety checkpoints statute, and additional cases challenging the checkpoints began to work through the court system. In Commonwealth v. Blouse, the court reinforced the five criteria that must be followed in order for checkpoints to be constitutional. The cases have also held that police need only to "substantially" comply with these guidelines in order for the checkpoint to be valid.

What Must Pennsylvania Police Do To Hold a Sobriety Checkpoint?

First, any stops of vehicles must be brief and there can be no physical search. Second, motorists must receive sufficient warning of the checkpoint. Third, the decision to have the checkpoint, as well as the location, must be subject to administrative approval, not a spur-of-the-moment decision by ordinary patrol officers. Fourth, the checkpoint must be in an area where intoxicated drivers are likely to be present. Finally, there must be a fixed method in place to determine which drivers to stop, and it cannot be purely based on officer discretion at the scene.

Several subsequent cases have challenged these rules in an effort to determine exactly what is required of law enforcement. Cases have held that police will not be required to announce the locations of roadblocks in newspapers or other media, as road signs ahead of the checkpoint have been held to constitute sufficient warning.

Police also do not have to provide drivers an opportunity to avoid the checkpoint. If a driver avoids the roadblock by making a u-turn or exiting the roadway, police will only be allowed to stop the driver if he or she has violated the motor vehicle code, or there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

If you have been stopped at a sobriety checkpoint and arrested or charged with DUI, protect your rights by speaking with an experienced criminal defense attorney. A careful review of the checkpoint in your case can determine if police followed all necessary procedures.

Related Source:

State court decisions on the constitutionality of sobriety checkpoints

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Gregory R. Gifford
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    "Gregory R. Gifford, a partner at the Lansdale law firm of Rubin, Glickman, Steinberg and Gifford, P.C., was elected Vice President of the Montgomery Bar Association on January 13, 2017. Mr. Gifford is a past Director of the Association and has also served as its Treasurer and Secretary"Read more...

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