Virginia Court Further Defines Characteristics of Legal Checkpoints
November 15, 2012 /24-7PressRelease/ -- The commonwealth of Virginia vigorously fights drunk driving by using sobriety checkpoints as part of the annual Checkpoint Strikeforce campaign -- a 10-year-old law-enforcement program in conjunction with surrounding states to fight drinking and driving. While the program is multifaceted, it focuses largely on the use of checkpoints to prevent drunk driving and uncover other traffic offenses.

2012 Checkpoint Strikeforce

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling officially kicked off the 2012 campaign in September at a NASCAR event, confirming that Virginia is committed to ending drunk driving on its roads. According to an official press release, drunk driving deaths have decreased in numbers in the past four years, but still about one-third of the commonwealth's traffic fatalities are related to drinking and driving. In 2011, Virginia saw more than 28,000 people convicted of DUI.

The campaign targets mostly young, male drivers and an official regional survey in August 2012 had some interesting findings about this driver demographic:
- For 66 percent, the "biggest fear" related to drunk driving is that they could kill or hurt others.
- For 27 percent, knowing that sobriety checkpoints were being held would or has caused them to modify their behavior.

Constitutional limits

While the commonwealth's commitment to the use of checkpoints is clear and its motivation admirable, the state still must run its checkpoints in compliance with the U.S. Constitution's protection of the rights of the individual drivers.

Desposito v. Commonwealth

In June 2012, the Court of Appeals of Virginia heard a case in which it was asked to decide whether a particular Hanover County checkpoint violated the Fourth Amendment's constitutional prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

After being stopped at Hanover County Sheriff's traffic checkpoint in May 2009, Michael Anthony Desposito was convicted of the offense of driving after having been declared a habitual offender. Desposito asserted the checkpoint had not met constitutional standards, so evidence collected there that supported his conviction should be suppressed.

Specifically, the defendant said that the time frame for the checkpoint that day was too "open-ended" because it had no "upper limit" and that the police running it had "unbridled discretion" because their supervisor had given them a time frame of during "lunchtime."

The appeals court disagreed with Desposito's arguments. While a checkpoint that promotes public safety has been declared constitutional and being stopped at one is a "seizure," the court explained that a checkpoint passes constitutional muster as long as the officers do not have "unbridled discretion" that could be used to target specific individuals. A valid checkpoint must be run pursuant to an explicit "plan or practice"; use "neutral criteria"; and the officers' conduct must be limited by certain standards.

Legal discretion

In Desposito's case, the court felt that the Hanover County checkpoint had "ample safeguards" against unconstitutional intrusions on the privacy of stopped drivers. In particular, the court noted that within the parameters set forth by the department for the checkpoint it would have been impossible for the supervisor to target any particular driver.

Here, "lunchtime" provided a narrow standard that did not leave much scheduling discretion to the supervisor, since lunchtime is generally understood to be around noon, and the supervising officer accordingly chose 11 a.m. through 1 p.m.

In addition, not placing an explicit time limit on the checkpoint operation was reasonable because the officers had a clear understanding that the department never held checkpoints longer than two hours, and a regular practice like this limits the potential for the police to use unfettered discretion against members of the public.

If you or a loved one is stopped at a Virginia traffic checkpoint with negative consequences, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney about whether the checkpoint was constitutional, and to understand your legal rights and options.

Article provided by The Law Offices of Daniel J Miller
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