As a DUI defense lawyer, I am often asked about checkpoints. Checkpoints are planned stops along a road, where law enforcement stops vehicles and checks for drugs and sobriety. Yes, so long as procedure is followed, these checkpoints are generally allowed. But what if vehicles get off early to avoid the checkpoint? More interestingly, what if vehicles get off early due to signs about a checkpoint, and there was no real checkpoint? In other words, what if the checkpoint sins were a lie used by the police to then pull people over who tried to avoid the checkpoint?
Yesterday, a very interesting case was decided by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals regarding this very issue. The federal appeals court said that law enforcement can't do that. They ruled that a drug checkpoint ruse is not sufficient grounds to justify law enforcement authorities stopping vehicles. The ruling is the first in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to grapple with the widespread practice by law enforcement agencies nationwide of setting up bogus checkpoint signs along major routes, then stopping all motorists who take rural exits to avoid them.
The lower court had allowed law enforcement to do it.. However, it was reversed by the appeals court. The U.S. attorney's office, said in an email that prosecutors are reviewing the court's decision.
The Court said, "A Fourth Amendment seizure that relies solely on a driver's decision to use a rural or 'dead exit' following checkpoint signs falls short of the requirement of individualized, articulable suspicion of criminal activity." In other words, an officer must identify additional suspicious circumstances or independently evasive behavior to justify stopping a vehicle.
This decision could have significant Constitutional effects on cases and suppression issues. One of the most effective ways of beating a drunk driving or other criminal charge is by suppressing all evidence after the stop. Obviously, this Fourth Amendment decision is important and most criminal attorneys will take notice.