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.
For nearly two years, police and the California Highway Patrol have used sobriety checkpoints throughout the state for brief periods to check drivers.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Jay W. Bloom said an appeal will be filed with the California Supreme Court, which already has before it an appeal in another case in which another appellate court, in San Francisco, held such checkpoints to be legal.
In its ruling, the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana made a distinction between sobriety checkpoints and anti-terrorist searches at airports or agricultural inspection stations or checkpoints to search for illegal aliens. The 4th District has jurisdiction over Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
The decision affirmed Californians' "right to be left alone," said Joan Howarth, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who argued the case.
The unanimous decision of the three-judge panel was written by Justice Thomas F. Crosby Jr. and joined by Presiding Justice John K. Trotter Jr. Justice Edward J. Wallin concurred only in the result.
Crosby acknowledged that most appellate courts in other states have upheld the legality of such checkpoints. But, he wrote, the roadblocks fit no recognized exception to the ban on car searches without a warrant.
Criticizing the decision, Bloom said the government interest in controlling drunk driving should be given more weight. "You balance rights of individuals with the needs of society to protect the public against the danger of drunk drivers," he said.
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 an odor 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.
During the week of his arrest, Anaheim used roadblocks for seven consecutive days.