NC court cases help set the framework for Raleigh DWI checkpoints

02/05/2014 9:37 PM

02/05/2014 9:39 PM

As a hive of new bars and restaurants transform downtown Raleigh into a toast of the Triangle, trend-surfers have made a beeline for the capital to get a taste of the signature cocktails and fashionable craft brews.

Amid all the buzz over Raleigh’s amped-up nightlife, local law enforcement officers hope to dispense a sobering message for those who imbibe.

Most every weekend in Wake County, some law enforcement agency is operating a sobriety checkpoint with hopes of netting drivers impaired by too much to drink, by drugs, or by a cocktail of the two.

“Hopefully, there are people out there who – when they realize we’re doing these checkpoints – are deterred,” said Lt. Tim Tomczak, a Raleigh police officer who helped the city department win a $525,270 federal grant last year from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for DWI enforcement.

As checkpoints become more common, court cases challenging charges resulting from the operations are helping shape the legal framework both nationally and in North Carolina.

This past weekend, Raleigh police stopped cars traveling along Glenwood Avenue near the Five Points area between 12:30 a.m. and 3 a.m. on Super Bowl eve Saturday. The checkpoint, which brought 43 officers together from police departments in Apex, Cary, Fuquay-Varina, Garner, Holly Springs, Wake Forest and Wendell, resulted in nearly 40 charges for motorists checked during the 2-1/2-hour span.

Eighteen people were charged with driving while impaired.

Police also did “saturation patrols” in targeted areas to look for drivers whose friends might have let them drive drunk.

On Tuesday, the N.C. Court of Appeals issued a ruling in an Anson County case in which the three-judge panel agreed that evidence gathered at a checkpoint could not be used at trial because the sheriff’s department that organized the operation did not have written guidelines for the stops.

In early December, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled on a Mecklenburg County case that raised questions about what happens to drivers who refuse to do breath-alcohol tests in BAT mobiles at the checkpoints.

In that case, the driver pulled up to a checkpoint and the officer noted the scent of alcohol. The driver, according to court records, admitted drinking five beers. After doing poorly on a field sobriety test, the driver refused to take a breath test in the mobile unit at the checkpoint. The officer then took the defendant to a nearby hospital to take a blood sample but did not have a warrant to search the man or to draw blood.

The officer stated that a warrantless search was done because it would have taken four to five hours to obtain a warrant. The driver tried to have the blood test results suppressed at his trial, but a judge refused to do so.

There are urgent cases in which law enforcement officers can act without a search warrant, and the Mecklenburg County judge and N.C. Appeals Court ruled that in that specific case that the officer acted within legal bounds.

The court noted, though, that law enforcement agencies should make great efforts to have magistrates available through video technology when possible, so warrantless searches will not be necessary.

Tomczak, the Raleigh lieutenant who helps organize checkpoints within city limits, pays close attention to North Carolina court rulings and national cases.

He is a big believer in the idea that checkpoints can reduce alcohol-related crashes. National studies have shown that not only do they reduce alcohol-related crashes by about 20 percent, but also that every dollar invested in checkpoints can save communities between $6 and $23 in costs from alcohol-related crashes.

“The purpose of a checkpoint,” Tomczak said, “is frankly to capture impaired drivers.”

Tomczak said checkpoints can find drivers who might otherwise be able to keep a car between the white lines of a travel lane but have impaired judgment and slower reactions if something out of the ordinary happens on their trip home. In Wake County last year, officers issued 1,857 DWI charges.

Officers need to see a motorist weaving or have reasonable suspicion to stop drivers, Tomczak said, and checkpoints allow the law enforcement agencies to stop everybody and perform a quick evaluation.

Civil libertarians and DWI attorneys often question whether sobriety checkpoints are a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits warrantless searches.

In 12 states, sobriety checkpoints are not conducted, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Some states prohibit them outright. Texas has determined that checkpoints are illegal under its interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

In North Carolina, though, checkpoints are conducted. Tomczak said he goes to great lengths to make sure officers working at the stops he organizes know the Raleigh Police Department policy and follow it.

At 11 p.m. Friday, just hours before setting up a roadblock on Glenwood Avenue, Tomczak held a briefing for the 43 officers who would help with the Raleigh checkpoint.

He read the policy out loud, an exercise that takes about 20 minutes, and went over diagrams.

Raleigh draws blood from impaired drivers at the Wake County jail, and if a warrant is needed, a magistrate is there either to sign off on the search or to stop it.

The Raleigh police typically organize one checkpoint operation each month, but Tomczak said other Wake County agencies usually have one somewhere each weekend.

Most of the impaired drivers the checkpoints find, Tomczak said, have had too much alcohol, but officers also see marijuana impairment and people who have mixed anxiety medications with other substances.

The Raleigh Police Department also uses “saturation patrols,” where officers target a larger geographic area and look for signs of impaired driving, instead of stopping drivers indiscriminately. Many law enforcement agencies tout more success with the targeted patrols than they do at sobriety checkpoints.

The checkpoints, they say, are designed to do more than snare the impaired. They also are set up to deter imbibers thinking about getting behind the wheel of a car.

Police hope to curb the number of alcohol-related crashes. In Wake County, 4,556 of the crashes that occurred in Wake County between 2008 and 2012, about 4 percent of the 112,696 recorded by the N.C. Highway Safety Resource Center, were alcohol-related.

“We’re trying to get people to do things voluntarily,” Tomczak said.

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