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Supreme Court overturns sobriety checkpoint arrest

Police in Pennsylvania use sobriety checkpoints to conduct random stops of motorists and determine whether they are driving while impaired. Last month, however, the state Supreme Court suppressed evidence in a drunk driving prosecution of a New York motorist because the police departments from 16 different jurisdictions did not comply with laws governing inter-governmental operation of sobriety checkpoints.

The checkpoint was implemented in Robinson to catch drunk and impaired drivers leaving concerts in Burgettstown. The driver was stopped at the checkpoint on Sept. 29, 2013 and admitted to a Moon Township officer that she drank a shot and a beer. Her blood alcohol content level was 0.152 which is twice the legal limit.

Her attorney filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained at the checkpoint because the multi-jurisdictional task force which operated it did not have a formal agreement to work together as required by the intergovernmental cooperation act. Prosecutors argued that the governments met one of the six exceptions to the municipal police jurisdiction act that allow police to engage in law enforcement outside of their home communities.

The court rejected this motion and ruled that motorist was guilty of DUI. She was sentenced to 30 days of intermediate punishment, fines and probation. The Pennsylvania Superior Court later upheld this ruling in May 2017.

The state Supreme Court, however, reversed and ruled that the stop was not legal. The Court found that the six exceptions to the municipal police jurisdiction act did not govern this sobriety checkpoint and that the jurisdictions which operated it had to pass ordinances and enter a formal agreement under the ICA. Because the police did not have legal authority to stop this motorist at this checkpoint, the evidence seized during this stop had to be suppressed.

Without a joint agreement, according to the Court, police would not be accountable to local governments. The motorist's attorney predicted that the prosecution now has insufficient evidence to prosecute this case.

Motorists stopped by police should seek immediate legal representation to determine whether the stopped was legal and if the police complied with their constitutional rights. An attorney can challenge illegally seized evidence or help negotiate a reasonable resolution of charges.

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