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A Long Drive Home: Sobriety Checkpoints and Police Accuracy In North Carolina

Sobriety, or DUI, and safety check points have become a fairly common part of the American scenery. They are used with supreme court approval, so long as they follow certain important principles and rules. When they encroach on civil liberties or violate establish rules of evidence, it’s important to immediately seek the help of a qualified DUI defense lawyer.

A study by Charlotte’s NBC affiliate, WCNC’s “Defenders Team,” held some implied criticism for these checkpoints…and their real purpose, or effectiveness. Only 11% of all citations and arrests in their study of about 900 cases were for being under the influence. It’s also an interesting fact that checkpoints are used for (from the police and State perspective) a good tactical reason. They can be seen as ‘immune’ from DUI defense attacks. But as the following case shows, that’s sometimes all too true. DUI prosecutions, whether they are fair or legal or not, have a devastating impact, immediately.  Assuming a fair outcome from the prosecution, without the help of a DUI attorney, is one of the worst mistakes people can make.

II. The Facts of the Arrest

As with so many other assumptions about police work, many people incorrectly assume checkpoints are usually only on weekends, or in specific busy areas.

Bruce Townsend was driving down Providence Road in Charlotte, late on a Thursday night… about 11:28 PM. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department were looking for impaired drivers, they said, or “other vehicular infractions.” Following a brief conversation, and after Bruce acknowledged having “several” beers earlier, the police officer administered a field Alco– sensor test to him. Notably, the DUI lawyer later showed in challenging the probable cause, an Alco-sensor was used twice, and both tests showed positive for alcohol.

Only after these Alco-sensor tests, did the police officer then perform several field sobriety tests. In fact, several field tests were administered: there was the horizontal gaze test, a walking turn test, the alphabet test. Bruce failed two of the three tests. As a result, he was taken over to a breath alcohol testing (BAT) vehicle at the checkpoint: there he blew a 0.10 on the first test, and 0.09 on the second… next, he was taken to jail at 12:56 AM.

The defendant elected his right to a jury trial, where he was convicted. The judge gave a sentence of 60 days imprisonment, fines, and restrictions that ranged from the surrender of his driver’s license to a treatment for any alcohol assessment plans. Working with a criminal defense attorney, the defendant appealed that conviction for four reasons.

III.    Picking the Right Defense

DUI defenses aren’t always obvious. From the facts discussed so far, these cases should be placed in the hands of an experienced, qualified DUI defense attorney, to make the best early choices about where (and how) to put the best defense. In some ways, these legal choices can be compared to working with an expert tailor.

The four defenses used in this case are a good lesson in how important DUI defense experience is.

  1. A Knoll Motion: that there was not probable cause for the arrest;
  2. An illegal bond: that the magistrate must actually put in writing the option bond’s alternative conditions for release (which did not happen here).
  3. Probable Cause: the defense DUI attorney showed there was almost no initial physical evidence, except for bloodshot eyes.
  4. Improper use of the Alco-sensor results: because the results can’t be used as substantive evidence.

There was actually even another argument, involving whether or not the accused had been isolated from contact with family members and representatives. For whatever reason, however, the North Carolina Court of Appeals barely touched on this issue. The four issues just noted couldn’t be swept away so easily, however. In some ways, the DUI defense lawyer tied the four arguments together. For example, if the police officer only relied on bloodshot eyes to administer the Alco-sensor, this means the use of the Alco-sensor assumed too much value in the prosecution. The Appeals Court wrestled with the probable cause issues, largely through trying to assess if the prosecution relied or not on the substantive results of the two Alco-sensor tests. Once they decided the prosecution case was strong enough to convict without the Alco-sensor, the case was largely settled against the defendant.

Even while conceding that there was an error by the Magistrate in the bond requirement (to have put it in writing so the accused would be fully informed), the Court seemed to shift that error aside as merely “technical.” Oddly, perhaps, the North Carolina Appeals Court even seemed to relate this “technicality” to protecting the supposed probable cause. Yet, there was still one important question left: one strong argument used by the criminal defense lawyer. Were bloodshot eyes enough?

IV. Conclusions: Testing Police Checkpoints

There is the expression: “Who will watch, the watchers?” It’s never enough to simply take the evidence that’s offered by a police investigation at face value. In this case, the DUI defense lawyer, for example, proved much of the argument about the technical defects of not requiring a legal bond in this case. Despite that, as noted above, the Court of Appeals found that it was a “minor” error not meriting dismissal of the charges. This unfortunate conclusion by the court is open to criticism. Given that a series of connected errors could have reversed the conviction, it’s hoped this practice was addressed in similar cases. In many ways, however, it was the Appeal Court’s resting on the 22-year career experience of the police officer that probably saved this case from reversal. Though there was no independent physical evidence, the Court clearly relied heavily on the police officer’s experience in identifying (the bloodshot eyes and smell of alcohol) whether a suspect was “under the influence.” The same point of DUI experience applies in selecting a DUI trial attorney.

Because of the jeopardy, costs, and long-term consequences to careers and security involved, it’s always important to consult with a qualified DUI lawyer as early as possible. DUI, in other words, should never be left in the hands of DYI. If you, a family member or a loved one have been accused of a crime or citation related to DUI, or involving related claims or rights, please contact us.  You will speak with a Criminal Defense/ DUI lawyer who can best answer your questions.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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