Sobriety checkpoints are a common sight throughout Pennsylvania. But impaired or not, a driver at a Pennsylvania DUI checkpoint can make incriminating statements or provide officers with other evidence which can be used to prosecute him or her.
Officers use many other tools at checkpoints, which may result in an impairment of drivers’ constitutional rights. These are just a few of the legal issues that can arise at a DUI checkpoint.
Many sobriety checkpoints also employ the use of K9 officers to determine whether drugs are present in any vehicle passing through the checkpoint. The United States Supreme Court has held that a drug sniff is not a search subject to the protections of the Fourth Amendment (see United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 1983).
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, has determined that a drug sniff is a search subject to the protections of the Pennsylvania Constitution (see Commonwealth v. Johnston, 530 A.2d 74, 1987). This means that a Pennsylvania law enforcement agent who wishes to conduct a lawful drug sniff must:
- Have specific facts to support his or her reasonable suspicion that drugs are present in the area to be tested.
- Be lawfully present in the place where this reasonable suspicion was obtained (for example: an officer who illegally broke into a private home could not benefit from any suspicion he or she gained there). In the case of a DUI checkpoint, drivers voluntarily enter the area, and this is not generally an issue.
If an officer brings a K9 unit to conduct a drug sniff without having reasonable suspicion that drugs are in the vehicle, evidence of a positive drug sniff (as well as any incriminating evidence found in the vehicle as a result) can be suppressed. This means that a jury would not hear any of this evidence in determining whether the defendant was guilty. This is a harsh result for the prosecution, but it is an important tool used by the courts to ensure that law enforcement officers respect suspects’ constitutional rights.
Federal Security Agencies and Checkpoint Stops
The federal government also has security agencies that establish checkpoints. Border crossings and airports are common locations for such checkpoints. In these cases, travelers are deemed to have consented to a search of their person or luggage in exchange for the privilege of crossing an international border, or engaging in federally-regulated air travel. This consent precludes many legal challenges to pat-downs or other simple searches.
It does not, however, mean that federal security officers have unlimited freedom in their actions. If a passenger revokes his or her consent, the officer must have probable cause to continue a search. If a passenger is detained and interrogated, officers must respect the protections of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. These are the rights referred to in the well-known Miranda Rights: to remain silent and to consult with an attorney. A custodial interrogation which violates these rights can result in a confession being suppressed.
In the event that you encounter any kind of checkpoint, police or federal agents may only conduct a search if they have probable cause to believe that you might have committed a crime. They may ask trick questions in hopes that you will give them enough evidence to conduct a search. That’s why anytime you encounter law enforcement, you should remain silent and consult with an attorney. Anything you say can later be used to incriminate you.
Our Scranton criminal defense attorneys have seen defendants lose these and other important constitutional rights as a result of improper police procedures at DUI and federal security checkpoints.