This July 4th, our Birmingham DUI defense lawyers fully anticipate we’ll see a glut of drunk driving arrests by police agencies that have established sobriety checkpoints throughout the state.
What we also know is that our chances of winning a reduction or dismissal of charges has improved with last year’s Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals’ ruling in Ogburn v. Alabama. This case challenged the constitutionality of sobriety checkpoints, following the arrest of one man on the Fourth of July two years ago. What the court ultimately ruled in a split 3-2 decision was that while checkpoints remain legal, agencies that fail to conduct them under very strict guidelines risk the legality of their operation. The justices urged that each police agency’s policies and guidelines for checkpoints be written down for further reference.
This may sound very straightforward, but given the extent to which police host sobriety checkpoints over the holiday, there is ample room for error – and that means you have a better shot at winning your case.
The case in question stemmed from the July 2, 2011 arrest of the defendant on a single charge of driving under the influence, a violation of Alabama Code 32-5A-191(a). The defendant was sentenced to 90 days in jail, though the trial court suspended that sentence, and he was also placed on two years of probation, ordered to pay a $600 fine and attend mandatory DUI courses.
The defendant’s arrest occurred during a traffic checkpoint associated with July 4th holiday sobriety enforcement. The trooper requested license and registration from the defendant, and at that time noticed unopened beer containers in the back of the defendant’s truck. The trooper asked whether the defendant had been drinking, to which he responded he had consumed “a couple.” The trooper would later say the defendant appeared to be DUI.
He was waved forward to another trooper, who also believed him to be DUI and conducted several field sobriety tests, which the defendant reportedly failed. He was arrested, given a blood-alcohol analysis at the jail and registered a blood-alcohol level of 0.14 percent.
In challenging the conviction, the focus was not on whether the defendant was drinking or drunk, but whether the troopers properly established the checkpoint according to the law. Specifically, the challenge was that the state failed to prove that his initial stop was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, as the checkpoint was not carried out in a plan embodying explicit, neutral limitations on officer conduct, as required by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1979 Brown v. Texasdecision.
The state failed to produce evidence of its policies and procedures and the trooper testified that the agency stopped every single vehicle that came through. Further, that trooper testified that he assumed he would have the authority to wave through a circuit court judge, theoretically, should one happen to approach. This assumption, the court found, seemed to indicate that the officer’s discretion was not being appropriately monitored – which is part of the goal of the Fourth Amendment.
The court ruled that in this case, the state failed to present evidence showing the limits of officer discretion in DUI checkpoints. As such, the warrantless stop of the defendant at the checkpoint, absent any individualized suspicion of wrongdoing, was unreasonable per the Fourth Amendment and the evidence obtained pursuant to the stop should have been suppressed. Ultimately, that meant the state had no case and the appellate court acquitted the defendant.