WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ROADBLOCKS IN GEORGIA

by W. Scott Smith Esq. 

Roadblocks have become more and more popular among Georgia law enforcement agencies.  In North Georgia, we are seeing Georgia State Patrol roadblocks and Georgia Public Safety roadblocks for DUI more than ever before.

Here is what you need to know: The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution imposes limits on search-and-seizure powers in order to prevent arbitrary and oppressive interference by Georgia police officials with the privacy and personal security of individuals. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. As its text indicates, the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness.’ When a driver brings his vehicle to a stop as a result of a request or show of authority by a law enforcement officer, the officer effectively seizes the vehicle and everyone in the vehicle, the driver and all passengers. Such a seizure ordinarily is unreasonable, and hence unconstitutional – absent individualized suspicion. The United States Supreme Court has recognized, however, a narrow exception to the individualized suspicion requirement for vehicle stops made pursuant to a plan embodying explicit, neutral limitations on the conduct of individual officers. Under this checkpoint exception, the reasonableness of the initial stop depends not on individualized suspicion that the driver has committed a traffic violation or other wrongdoing, but instead on the balance between the public interest served by the checkpoint program and the right of individuals to personal security free from arbitrary and oppressive interference by Georgia officials.

Aside from general reasonableness, the Fourth Amendment applied to roadblocks also requires that the government follow with two other main requirements:

The first is that a roadblock is only satisfactory where [1] the decision to implement the roadblock was made by supervisory personnel rather than the officers in the field; [2] all vehicles are stopped as opposed to random vehicle stops; [3] the delay to motorists is minimal; [4] the roadblock operation is well identified as a police checkpoint; and [5] the screening officer’s training and experience is sufficient to qualify him to make an initial determination as to which motorists should be given field tests for intoxication.

The second requirement is that a roadblock program must a have a principle purpose other than the general interest in crime control. The Georgia Supreme Court stated late last year in its landmark roadblock decision Brown v. State that this requirement poses the question as to why an agency utilizes a roadblock.  If the primary purpose of the checkpoint program is crime-fighting in general then the checkpoints implemented under that program are unconstitutional, even if the decision to implement them was made well in advance by the official with the most policymaking authority in the agency.  The Court stated it is at the “programmatic level” that the “primary purpose” inquiry must focus, with the goal of ensuring that the agency has not authorized roadblocks primarily for the general crime control but rather for an “appropriate limited purpose” like traffic safety. Thus, the question is whether the police checkpoint at issue implement pursuant to a checkpoint program that had when viewed at the programmatic level, an appropriate primary purpose other than general crime control.

Based on this recent case law, when we challenge your initial stop at a roadblock by way of a motion to suppress, the State bears the burden of proving that the seizure was constitutional. This requires the State to prove that the stop was reasonable under the totality of the circumstances. At a minimum, the State must show that the law enforcement agency’s checkpoint program had an appropriate primary purpose other than ordinary crime control-a purpose examined at the programmatic level, rather than by trying to determine the motives of the supervisor who implemented and the officers who coordinated the particular roadblock at issue. Further, the State bears the burden of proving that the five (5) requirements in step one were met.  The written policy in Brown stated that the primary purpose of a roadblock was namely “to monitor and check driver’s licenses, driver condition, vehicle registrations, vehicle equipment, and various other requirements of the Georgia State Motor Vehicle and Traffic Code.” Further, the policy also expressly forbids the use of roadblocks as a pretext for general crime detection.  The Court upheld the policy as satisfying the second requirement.

It is our opinion at our criminal defense law firm that every roadblock needs to be closely scrutinized for illegal seizure.  Proper scrutiny requires an examination of a policy purpose of the checkpoint at the programmatic level. The Georgia law enforcement policy must sufficiently limit the agency performing the roadblock, whether it be Georgia State Patrol or others, so that the primary purpose of a roadblock could not be for general crime detection.