A decision recently handed down by the Georgia Supreme Court underscore how seriously the court system takes the duty of law enforcement officials to ensure the rights of those who are stopped are thoroughly protected (specifically, their Fourth Amendment rights protecting against unreasonable search and seizure).
D.C. DUI defense lawyers know that while the courts have well-established the right of law enforcement to conduct the checkpoints in most states, as well as in D.C., that does not give officers a free pass to abandon faithfulness to the Fourth Amendment.
In Williams v. State of Georgia, the court threw out an earlier appellate court decision to uphold the conviction of a man arrested for DUI at a checkpoint.
The case began in 2010. The decision to establish a sobriety checkpoint was made solely by a supervisory sergeant who worked with the county’s HEAT unit, which is a state-funded patrol operations in which the sole purpose is carrying out such checks. The sergeant oversaw the unit and two field officers.
The sergeant was not limited to the total number of checkpoints he could initiate each year, but he was advised that there were limitations on when and where the checkpoints were held. He did not have to get permission from his supervisors to initiate one, and he was never required to keep written records detailing the operation or its planning.
On the night in question, the sergeant says he decided to initiate a sobriety roadblock at the start of his shift, about an hour before its implementation. He instructed the two officers in his charge to join him.
One of those arrested was Williams. He had driven up to the site of the checkpoint around 2 a.m. Officials allege they immediately smelled alcohol while asking for his license and proof of insurance. Williams declined to submit to a portable breathalyzer test.
At one point, Williams reportedly conceded to having drunk “a couple of beers,” but declined to participate in field sobriety tests. He was arrested on charges of DUI and violation of open container laws.
Williams’ defense lawyer requested that the evidence against him be suppressed for a number of reasons. First, there was a question regarding the supervisory authority of the sergeant to make such decisions without approval from a higher-ranking officer. The other issue was the lack of documentation required in preparation for the roadblock.
The lower court denied that motion, and he was convicted. Upon appeal, the appellate court upheld that ruling, stating that the sergeant did have the authority to make the decision to initiate a roadblock, he made that decision in advance (as opposed to a hasty decision while in the field), and that roadblocks were a legitimate purpose of the HEAT mission.
The case was then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. There, justices determined that the lower courts had erred in denial the motion to suppress because the reasons for initiation of the roadblocks were overly broad. In the sheriff’s office’s own policy outline, deputies were informed that checkpoints were to be conducted for the purposes of “general interest in crime control.” Such reasoning is not in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s previous rulings on the matter. That is, checkpoints must be for the express purpose of removing drunk drivers from the road – not general crime prevention.
That’s why checkpoints set up for the purposes of searching vehicles for drugs were declared unconstitutional in 2000.
The authorization of DUI checkpoints was never intended to be a blank check for law enforcement to conduct these operations however they wish.
If you are facing DUI charges in D.C., contact the Law Office of Daniel A. Gross, PLLC at 202-596-5716.