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Court of Appeals Case Looks at DWI Checkpoint Argument

On Tuesday, the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued an opinion in the case State v. Townsend. To briefly review the facts, the defendant in Townsend was arrested for DWI after being stopped at a checkpoint. Yesterday, we discussed the part of the opinion dealing with Knoll motions. In addition to filing a Knoll motion, the defendant in Townsend filed a motion to suppress the evidence resulting from the checkpoint.

The court stated that

[w]hen considering a challenge to a checkpoint, the reviewing court must undertake a two-part inquiry to determine whether the checkpoint meets constitutional requirements. First, the court must determine the primary programmatic purpose of the checkpoint. . . .

Second, if a court finds that police had a legitimate primary programmatic purpose for conducting a checkpoint . . . [the court] must judge its reasonableness, hence, its constitutionality, on the basis of the individual circumstances.

The defendant first argued that the checkpoint was unconstitutional because it lacked an acceptable primary purpose. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress and made various findings of fact in connection with its denial. The findings of fact included that the checkpoint was set up by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. on October 20, 2010 near the 7200 block of Providence Road. The officer who was supervising the checkpoint chose the location because over 30 traffic fatalities had occurred in the area since 2006, and half of those fatalities involved impaired driving. The area chosen for the checkpoint is near the Arboretum Shopping Center, which includes several establishments which sell or serve alcohol. The trial court also found that the checkpoint was set up in compliance with G.S. 20-16.3A because

there was a written plan; [the supervising officer] briefed the 25 officers from 6 different agencies who were operating the checkpoint; every vehicle was to be stopped and was stopped; signs notifying approaching motorists of a dwi check point ahead were placed approximately 200 yards from [the] check point; [and] non-impaired drivers were only delayed about 15 seconds each.

The defendant argued that the checkpoint was unconstitutional because there was no evidence showing that it was set up for any purpose other than general crime detection, which is an improper purpose. The court stated that the defendant’s argument lacked merit because the date of the checkpoint had been planned for almost a year based on when the Alcohol Breath Testing vehicle was available. The supervising officer also testified that the location of the checkpoint was chosen based on the number of impaired driving fatalities and that the main purpose of the checkpoint was to check for impaired driving.

The court agreed with the trial court’s findings that the checkpoint had a legitimate primary purpose and was conducted pursuant to the statutory requirements.

The defendant next argued that the checkpoint was unreasonable. Once the court has decided that the checkpoint has a legitimate primary purpose, the court must determine whether the checkpoint was reasonable. “To determine whether a seizure at a checkpoint is reasonable requires a balancing of the public's interest and an individual's privacy interest.” This determination is made by using a three-prong test set out in Brown v. Texas (1979) by the United States Supreme Court.

Under Brown, the trial court must consider [1] the gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure[;] [2] the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest[;] and [3] the severity of the interference with individual liberty.

The court of appeals stated that

The first Brown factor — the gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure — analyzes the importance of the purpose of the checkpoint. This factor is addressed by first identifying the primary programmatic purpose . . . and then assessing the importance of the particular stop to the public.

Because the officer who stopped the defendant noticed his odor of alcohol and red, bloodshot eyes and also conducted field sobriety tests and alco-sensor tests, the court held that the first Brown factor was met.

The second prong under Brown looks at “‘the degree to which the seizure advance[s] the public interest,’ and requires the trial court to determine whether ‘[t]he police appropriately tailored their checkpoint stops to fit their primary purpose.’” The court stated that

Our Court has previously identified a number of non-exclusive factors that courts should consider when determining whether a checkpoint is appropriately tailored, including: whether police spontaneously decided to set up the checkpoint on a whim; whether police offered any reason why a particular road or stretch of road was chosen for the checkpoint; whether the checkpoint had a predetermined starting or ending time; and whether police offered any reason why that particular time span was selected.

The court held that the findings of facts made by the trial court, including the planning of the date, the traffic fatalities in the area of the checkpoint, the nearby shopping center, the written plan, and the intention to check all the cars that went through the checkpoint, indicated that “the trial court considered appropriate factors to determine whether the checkpoint was sufficiently tailored to fit its primary purpose, satisfying the second Brown prong.”

In considering the final Brown prong, “courts have consistently required restrictions on the discretion of the officers conducting the checkpoint to ensure that the intrusion on individual liberty is no greater than is necessary to achieve the checkpoint's objectives.” The court stated that

Courts have previously identified a number of non-exclusive factors relevant to officer discretion and individual privacy, including: the checkpoint's potential interference with legitimate traffic[]; whether police took steps to put drivers on notice of an approaching checkpoint[]; whether the location of the checkpoint was selected by a supervising official, rather than by officers in the field[]; whether police stopped every vehicle that passed through the checkpoint, or stopped vehicles pursuant to a set pattern[]; whether drivers could see visible signs of the officers' authority[]; whether police operated the checkpoint pursuant to any oral or written guidelines[]; whether the officers were subject to any form of supervision[]; and whether the officers received permission from their supervising officer to conduct the checkpoint[.]

Instead of being a checklist or “lynchpins,” these factors should be considered in the totality of the circumstances. The court held that the trial court’s findings of facts, including the written plan, the stopping of every vehicle, the signs set up to notify drivers of the checkpoint, and the delay of non-impaired drivers by only 15 seconds, met the third factor because the trial court looked at “the totality of the circumstances in examining the reasonableness of [the] checkpoint.”

Therefore, the defendant’s argument that the evidence from the checkpoint should be suppressed failed because the checkpoint had a legitimate primary purpose and the Brown factors were met.

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