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Looking at the legality of traffic checkpoints, P.1

Law enforcement agencies have a wide variety of resources and strategies at their disposal to enforce criminal laws. Police officers do have limitations, though, on how they go about their work. To take several examples: before an arrest may take place, there must be probable cause to believe an offense has been committed; officers must generally have a warrant prior to conducting a search; officers must conduct searches in accordance with the terms of the warrant or according to specific exceptions to the warrant rule.

One of the tools law enforcement agencies have at their disposal when it comes to drunk driving is sobriety checkpoints. Sobriety checkpoints are legal under federal law, and under most state constitutions, though some states have declared them illegal under their state constitutions. In Maryland, sobriety checkpoints are legal, though there are certain requirements that must be met for them to remain so.

Sobriety checkpoints, it is important to understand, may not be used as a general law enforcement strategy. Rather, they are justified due to a public safety rationale. That is why Hartford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler was criticized for permitting a series of “heroin enforcement saturation” checkpoints last November.

The checkpoints, according to sources, did not actually function as checkpoints, but only served to alert motorists that law enforcement was in the area. The strategy according to commentators has been used by other agencies to flush out drivers who believe they are headed into a checkpoint where they will be stopped. Gahler defended the heroin checkpoints, saying they didn’t function like a DUI checkpoint, but critics say he was pushing the limits of constitutionality.

While officers who are involved in sobriety checkpoints do not have the ability to use them as a means of general law enforcement, it can certainly happen they end up making arrests for other crimes. Because of this, it is important for motorists to be aware of their rights. In our next post, we’ll look at this issue and some things to keep in mind with respect to the way sobriety checkpoints are dealt with in criminal defense work.

Sources:

Alertnet.org, “Maryland Sheriff's Heroin Checkpoints Skirt the Edge of Legality,” Phillip Smith, Nov. 27, 2015.

Governors Highway Safety Association, “Sobriety Checkpoint Laws,” Jan. 2016. 

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