The Virginia Verdict Review

Comprehensive and Informative Commentary on State and Federal Legal Matters

Establishing the Validity of Checkpoint Spots

Since the inception of the nation-wide “Click it or Ticket” program, law enforcement officers across the Commonwealth has been regularly conducting seat belt checkpoints to target drivers who do not buckle up.  In the last few months, I have received a few requests for further information/clarification as to what, exactly, the police are legally allowed to do, and what they are not, when it comes to roadblock stops.

To answer this question requires a bit more “legal jargon” than most blogs.  However, case law clearly establishes the requirements for checkpoints to be considered legal and valid.  The evolution of the arguments establishing the legality of certain types of checkpoints  has evolved, in part, as follows:

The primary case dealing with the issue of checkpoints is Michigan Department of State Police v. SitzHere, in 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court evaluated the constitutionality of a Michigan highway sobriety checkpoint program. In this instance, the checkpoint involved brief stops of motorists so that police officers could detect signs of intoxication and remove impaired drivers from the road.  The police had no reason to suspect any of the drivers of any wrong doing prior to stopping them.  Nonetheless, motorists who exhibited signs of intoxication were diverted for a license and registration check and, if warranted, further sobriety tests.  The Supreme Court found that this checkpoint program was clearly aimed at reducing the immediate hazard posed by the presence of drunk drivers on the highways, and there was an obvious connection between the imperative of highway safety and the law enforcement practice at issue. The gravity of the drunk driving problem and the magnitude of the State’s interest in getting drunk drivers off the road weighed heavily in their determination that the program was constitutional.  However, to protect drivers’ rights under the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court underscored that to be legal, a roadblock had to be carried out in accordance with a pre-published plan where officers acted without exercising individual discretion.

In the 1979 case of Delaware v.Prouse, the Supreme Court further clarified the difference between a legal checkpoint-like stop and the illegal, warrant-less detention of a motorist.   In this case, the Court held as invalid a discretionary, suspicion-less stop in which an officer stopped a vehicle simply to perform a check of the motorist’s driver’s license and registration. The officer’s conduct in that case was deemed unconstitutional primarily on account of his exercise of “standardless and unconstrained discretion.”  However, the Court nonetheless acknowledged the States’ “vital interest in ensuring that only those qualified to do so are permitted to operate motor vehicles, that these vehicles are fit for safe operation, and hence that licensing, registration, and vehicle inspection requirements are being observed.”  Accordingly, the Court suggested that “questioning of all oncoming traffic at roadblock-type stops” would be a lawful means of serving this interest in highway safety.

Most importantly, the Supreme Court further indicated in Prouse that it considered the purposes of such a hypothetical roadblock to be distinct from a general purpose of investigating crime.  This case itself reveals a difference in the Fourth Amendment significance of highway safety interests and the general interest in crime control.

Then, in the 2000 case of City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, the Supreme Court held that “[w]hen law enforcement authorities pursue primarily general crime control purposes at checkpoints . . . stops can only be justified by some quantum of individualized suspicion.”  In support of this opinion, the court stated the following:

“We have never approved a checkpoint program whose primary purpose was to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing. Rather, our checkpoint cases have recognized only limited exceptions to the general rule that a seizure must be accompanied by some measure of individualized suspicion. We suggested in Prouse that we would not credit the “general interest in crime control” as justification for a regime of suspicionless stops. 440 U.S. at 659, n. 18. Consistent with this suggestion, each of the checkpoint programs that we have approved was designed primarily to serve purposes closely related to the problems of policing the border or the necessity of ensuring roadway safety. Because the primary purpose of the Indianapolis narcotics checkpoint program is to uncover evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing, the program contravenes the Fourth Amendment.”

Moreover, and very specifically, the Supreme Court stated that the narcotics-interdiction purpose of the checkpoints in this case could not be rationalized in terms of a highway safety concern similar to the one present in Sitz.

“The detection and punishment of almost any criminal offense serves broadly the safety of the community, and our streets would no doubt be safer but for the scourge of illegal drugs. Only with respect to a smaller class of offenses, however, is society confronted with the type of immediate, vehicle-bound threat to life and limb that the sobriety checkpoint in Sitz was designed to eliminate.”

The end result of this analysis is that local law enforcement agencies across the country are attempting to, and are, conducting widespread abuses of the Fourth Amendment by conducting road blocks, ostensibly for Prouse purposes of public safety, but then adding a general crime component to those stops.  For example, while stopping they may have a drug dog sniff all cars.  This additional action, in my view, is clearly illegal.  There is no need to use a dog to meet the requirements of a registration check.  Moreover, even if a dog sniffs and finds an odor of narcotics, there is not sufficient evidence of individualized suspicion to warrant a stop.  For example, the officer cannot articulate a suspicion that the driver is in possession of narcotics, only that at some time narcotics were used in the car.

Unfortunately, bad lawyering sometimes paints the wrong picture when it comes to stops of this nature.  In Wright v. State, from the Court of Appeals of VA, a panel found that since a proper stop was made at a registration checkpoint, a subsequent search related after a drug dog alerted during the time of the stop was valid.  The lawyer never argued that component of Prouse that is essential: the sniff does not give individualized suspicion of wrongdoing.  So, given this dichotomy, there will be battles in the future.

Personally I have had success defending a citation issued after a checkpoint stop because the official plan for the checkpoint authorized it to take place on road A at the intersection of Road B.  However, the actual checkpoint was conducted on Road B and the intersection of Road A.  As a result, I argued that all of the citations/violations issued as a result of the checkpoint were not enforceable since the spot was not in conformance with the established procedure.

Individual success stories aside, the real problem with checkpoints is that the people of Virginia do not protest them enough.  Thousands of tickets are issued at checkpoints each year and each represents an individual case.  Therefore, to drum up enough public unrest so as to actually challenge the validity of the checkpoint system requires that the majority of these citations are challenged in court.  Unfortunately, the financial burden of defending oneself and a general fear of going in to court prevents most people from doing so.  Passively encouraged by this lack of opposition, checkpoints continue to be used throughout the Commonwealth, in my opinion, for general crime enforcement while disguised as a registration check.  The wolves are truly in sheep’s clothing in this sense.

Should you find yourself a victim of this particular law enforcement tactic, at least now you know that there are attorneys out there who can, and will, aggressively challenge checkpoint-driven violations.  The attorneys at Westlake Legal are always available for consultation in this matter.


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