A Glendale judge has upheld the California Highway Patrol's use of "sobriety checkpoints" to detect drunken drivers during the past holiday season.
In the first California court case to determine whether such roadblocks are constitutional, Glendale Municipal Judge J. D. Smith ruled that officers did not violate the rights of Denise Kell, a La Crescenta woman who was the first person to be arrested on drunk-driving charges at a roadblock in December.
Kell's attorney, J. Michael Flanagan, said he has not decided whether to appeal Smith's decision, which was made at a hearing last week. In his ruling, Smith denied a motion to suppress evidence, including the results of a blood-alcohol reading, obtained at a roadblock in La Crescenta at Foothill Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Smith's ruling departed from earlier determinations by municipal judges in Anaheim and San Diego. Their decisions, like Smith's, set no precedent. In the Anaheim and San Diego cases, similar roadblocks by local police departments were declared invalid on the basis that they violated the constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The Anaheim case is being appealed.
Smith ruled that the CHP roadblock was reasonable and represented a minimum intrusion into Kell's constitutional rights. The judge said in an interview that he based his decision on a recent state Supreme Court ruling on Proposition 8, the so-called Victims' Bill of Rights initiative that was approved by voters in 1982. The high court's ruling more narrowly defined an individual's rights in the area of search and seizure of evidence.
Smith said his ruling was a difficult one, but that "the CHP did have the authority to put up roadblocks and the officers did follow the attorney general's guidelines." He was referring to guidelines issued by state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp that specifically outlined how the roadblocks were to be conducted. "They did even more than asked for."
The La Crescenta roadblock was one of four in the Los Angeles area set up by Glendale-headquartered CHP officers during the holiday season. Other CHP roadblocks were put up in Bakersfield, Sacramento and Redding. The CHP was testing the roadblocks as a means of a means of detecting and deterring drunk drivers.
Capt. Bud Dennis, CHP commanding officer in Glendale, said, "It's the first case we're aware of that has been ruled constitutional. I'm pleased to see this case may go to trial."
Kell, 27, was ordered to return to Glendale Municipal Court on March 18 to face charges of drunk driving. Flanagan said he is reviewing his client's case and is studying videotapes of Kell's arrest made by the CHP and by a local television news crew. "In the event that she does appear good on the videotapes, it might be a case that we just go ahead and try," Flanagan said.
The results of Kell's blood-alcohol test were marginal, Flanagan said, and could be read a point lower or higher because of the inaccuracy of the measuring device. The readings, taken in a trailer at the roadblock, were .10 and .12. The legal limit is .10.
Flanagan compared the roadblocks to tactics used by the British in the days before the American Revolution: "It gets back to the English and their general warrants and writs of assistance, where the judges said you can go out and look for anything. This search under these circumstances--without probable cause, without a reason to believe criminal activity is afoot, without a search warrant--is a licensing of a general search just like what we rebelled against 200 years ago."
The sobriety checkpoints have been attacked by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has petitioned the state District Court of Appeal in San Francisco to prevent their use. A decision by the appellate court is pending.
A second municipal court challenge to a CHP-roadblock arrest is expected to be made in Bakersfield, Dennis said. The CHP, meanwhile, is considering setting up more sobriety checkpoints.
"There is some hope to be able to have a program of longer duration but that has not been decided yet," Dennis said. The holiday checkpoint was in place for 19 days.