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Sobriety Checkpoints Illegal, Appellate Court Justices Rule

September 20, 1986|JOHN SPANO | Times Staff Writer

Sobriety checkpoints designed to spot drunk drivers are illegal because they violate constitutional guarantees against unreasonable police searches, a state appellate court in Santa Ana ruled Friday.

An appeal will be filed with the California Supreme Court, Deputy State Atty. Gen. Jay W. Bloom said. An appeal in another case, in which an appellate court in San Francisco held the checkpoints to be legal, already is before the state high court, Bloom added.

"I think it totally ignores the needs of society to regulate this sort of activity," Bloom said. "Just about every state that has dealt with the question has ruled the checkpoints are constitutional."

Police and the California Highway Patrol have used sobriety checkpoints for nearly two years at different locations throughout the state, setting up temporary roadblocks for brief periods and stopping all passing drivers to see whether they have been drinking.

Seen as Intrusion

In its ruling, the 4th District Court of Appeal found the checkpoints to be an illegal intrusion into the privacy of citizens. It said the checkpoints differ from anti-terrorist searches at airports, agricultural inspection stations and checkpoints used to search for illegal aliens, which have been held constitutional. The 4th District covers Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

The decision affirms Californians' "right to be left alone," said an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who argued the case.

"The law requires that each of us be treated on the basis of our own behavior," Joan Howarth said. "We have a right to be left alone unless we do something that reasonably arouses suspicion."

"If you're serious about drunk drivers, you want police out there arresting intoxicated drivers, not questioning hundreds of thousands of sober drivers," Howarth said.

Youth Arrested in Anaheim

The case involved the arrest of an unidentified minor at a roadblock in Anaheim on New Year's Eve in 1984. When a police officer noticed the smell of alcohol, the youth was given a field sobriety test. He flunked and ultimately was found guilty in Juvenile Court of drunk driving.

He appealed, claiming that he had been detained without a warrant and without any reasonable basis for authorities to suspect that he was committing a crime.

In an opinion written by Justice Thomas F. Crosby Jr. and joined by Presiding Justice John K. Trotter Jr., the court found that sobriety checkpoints do not fit into any exceptions carved out by the courts to the rule that warrantless police arrests without probable cause are illegal.

The decision of the three-judge panel was unanimous, with Justice Edward J. Wallin concurring in the result only.

In the decision, Crosby recognized the "weight of authority" in other states where appellate courts have ruled on the issue; most have upheld the legality of the checkpoints. But, he wrote, the roadblocks fit no recognized exception to the ban on car searches without a warrant.

Lawyers from the attorney general's office, which issued a 1984 opinion holding that the checkpoints are legal, claimed they are like highway roadblocks used to search for illegal aliens.

But the court ruled that alien checkpoints involve stops at permanent locations familiar to motorists--unlike the surprise, random checkpoints set up by police looking for drunk drivers.

Lawyers with the Orange County public defender's office and the ACLU argued that immigration checkpoints are regulatory and are not used to search for criminal suspects.

Criticizing the decision, Bloom, of the state attorney general's office, said that the government interest in controlling drunk driving should be given more weight.

"You balance rights of the individual with the needs of society to protect the public against the danger of drunk drivers," he said.

But the ACLU's Howarth praised the decision, which she said ran counter to the prevailing political climate.

"It's significant when an appellate court recognizes the unlawfulness of sobriety checkpoints, especially at a time when there is so much political pressure in support," Howard declared. "The reality is that they (roadblocks) result in very few arrests.

"The vast majority of those stopped are lawful, sober drivers. The way to deter drunk driving is to make a lot of arrests, and these checkpoints are clearly not the way to do it," Howarth said.

'Area Search Warrants'

In a separate opinion not joined by the other justices, Crosby wrote that sobriety checkpoints may be legally created if authorized by "area search warrants."

Suggesting that drunk driving might be viewed primarily as a matter of traffic-safety regulation, Crosby stated that a judge's advance approval of a roadblock would avoid constitutional problems.

Neither Trotter nor Wallin agreed. Crosby took the unusual step of writing a separate opinion concurring with the majority opinion, which he also wrote, to propose the area search warrant approach.

Trotter disagreed, declaring:

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