Legalese — Roadblocks

Every once in a while, you can be driving along, minding your own business and following every traffic law, and still be legally stopped by the police.  This type of stop can be called a roadblock, a checkpoint, a safety check, or any number of names.  What it is called is irrelevant, so long as it is set up in the way the law has said is constitutional.

Brent v. State, 270 Ga. 160 (1998) outlines the circumstances that need to exist in order to make these roadblocks legal.  Those prerequisites are:

  1. The decision to implement the roadblock needs to be made by a supervisor;
  2. All passing vehicles are stopped, such that the officer doing the stopping has no discretion about who gets stopped;
  3. The delay to passing motorists is minimal; and
  4. The operation is well identified as a police roadblock.

You will notice that, contrary to popular opinion, there is no requirement that the roadblock be instituted because there is a pressing need for one, like an escaped convict or a robbery suspect on the lam.  It can be for any reason, because the courts have determined that a general interest in crime control and highway safety are reasonable concerns of the State.

Once you are stopped, it doesn’t mean that the police can search your car for any reason.  They can ask you for your driver’s license and proof of insurance and registration, but that’s about it without reasonable suspicion.  They may ask if they can search your car, but they can’t do it without your consent unless there is reasonable suspicion.  They can ask you to blow into an Intoxilyzer, but unless they have reason to believe you are driving drunk (the smell of alcohol on your breath, if you are slurring your words, if you are driving erratically, etc.) they can’t use your refusal against you.  They can, however, ask you to pull over to a secondary location to ask you more questions whether or not they have any kind of suspicion.

Whether or not you like this idea, it is the law, and it has long been established that the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution doesn’t prevent this.  Rather, there has to be a balance between the right that citizens have to travel free of governmental interference and the right to have effective enforcement of the laws.  See Brent, supra.

Bear in mind that these four prerequisites themselves have room for interpretation.  What exactly is a ‘minimal’ delay to passing motorists?  Is that a minute?  A half hour?  The word “All” in “All passing motorists” can also be open to interpretation – for example, stopping only eastbound traffic but not westbound traffic is ok, since the whole point is that the officers aren’t personally selecting which cars get stopped.  Likewise, a system that allows traffic to flow like, for example, stopping every third car, might be acceptable as well because it takes the discretion out of the officers’ hands.

It also doesn’t matter if a roadblock is set up down the road from a popular bar, for example.  The idea is that the roadblock doesn’t target ethnic or racial minorities, not that it doesn’t discriminate against people who are likely to have had a few drinks before getting on the road.  That’s not a ‘protected class’ according to the law.

As a general rule, whenever you are stopped by the police, be courteous and cooperative, which is, of course, not the same thing as admitting that you have contraband in the car.  Say yes sir or no ma’am, and if you refuse a search or field sobriety tests, do so politely.  The answer to, “May I see your license and registration” is not, “What do you need that for?  I didn’t do anything wrong!”  But rather, “Here you go, Sir.”    If you end up with a ticket or other charge, and the roadblock was improper, or even if you just want to complain to a supervisor about your delay, you can address that later through the proper channels.  You won’t get much of anywhere arguing at the scene, except possibly an obstruction charge.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.  For legal advice, you must consult an attorney. 

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