Massachusetts OUI roadblock upheld by Supreme Judicial Court

A Massachusetts OUI roadblock conducted in Quincy was upheld as Constitutional by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the case of Commonwealth v. Murphy. The DUI lawyer in Murphy argued that the roadblock was unconstitutional under Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights because it gave the officer unchecked discretion to order a driver from the follow of traffic and into the sobriety checkpoint where further inquiry into the drivers ability to operate a motor vehicle will be conducted.

In the case of Commonwealth v. McGeoghegan, 389 Mass. 137 (1983), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that sobriety checkpoints are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and Article 14, as long as the selection of motor vehicles to be stopped is not arbitrary, safety is assured, motorists’ inconvenience minimized, and assurance must be given that the procedure is being conducted pursuant to a plan devised by law enforcement supervisory personnel. The United States Supreme Court held that DUI roadblocks are permissible under the federal constitution in Michigan Dep’t of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990).

In Murphy, the trial judge found that the State police protocol and guidelines along with the instructions from the Major did not provide neutral criteria by which to direct cars from the follow of traffic. Accordingly, the judge found that the Quincy roadblock was contrary to the Massachusetts DUI roadblock case law and therefore a violation of Article 14 of the State Constitution.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, reversed the trial judge, holding that although there is some potential for abuse by officers, the requirement that an officer have reasonable suspicion to direct a driver from the flow of traffic is sufficient to provide object criteria to satisfy Article 14 of the State Constitution.

The court suggested that it would require the officers to greet each vehicle the same as set forth in the roadblock plan. In the Murphy case, the officer was instructed to make a brief and courteous statement to the operator of the motor vehicle, such as Good Evening, this is a State Police Sobriety checkpoint, we are checking all operators for sobriety. If the officer observes any articulable sign of possible intoxication, impairment or contraband, then further inquiry should be made at the designated screening area. The Court held that the guidelines used by the State police in the Quincy area where less intrusive than the guidelines upheld in prior cases that allowed inquiry into alcohol consumption if signs of impairments, glassy eyes, odor of alcohol and slurred speech were present.

The Murphy case supports DUI lawyers raising motions to suppress challenging the reasonable suspicion of ordering the driver from the flow of traffic and the propriety of questioning regarding alcohol consumption, depending on the language of the roadblock plan. The SJC should have followed the lead of the trial judge in Quincy and required supervisory officers to provide more detailed and objective criteria that must be followed before directing someone from the flow of traffic. Because a Massachusetts OUI charge is a crime of opinion that someone is impaired, the Constitutional protections of being free from unreasonable searches and seizures should require the State police to set forth specific criteria to guide an officers discretion. One officer may feel that a mere odor of alcohol is enough; another may feel odor should be combined with other signs of impairment. The trial justice was clearly correct in recognizing the potential for officers to make arbitrary decisions as to who to direct from the flow of traffic. Issues regarding roadblocks will continue to confront trial judges trying to balance current case law against constitutional requirements.

Massachusetts OUI roadblock stops are generally extremely defensible cases. Typically, the officer allows the motorist to drive from the check point to the screening area. This suggests that the impairment was not obvious; second, there is generally no evidence of erratic operation. Accordingly, roadblock cases require the Commonwealth to rely on the results of unreliable field sobriety tests. Attorney DelSignore defends Massachusetts OUI roadblock cases throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, including Quincy, Brockton, Dartmouth and Brighton. Call for a free evaluation of your case.

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