Special Issues in Holiday DWI Stops
Summertime holidays, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, are usually also high drinking and driving holidays. Therefore, police officers are usually out in force on these holidays. In the past, the public largely supported, and even encouraged, aggressive enforcement policies. But public confidence in police officers recently hit an all-time low. As a result, jurors which once viewed DWI roadblocks, heightened enforcement campaigns, and other efforts as justifiable and necessary now view them as police dragnets.
Furthermore, in a close case, jurors once gave police officers the benefit of the doubt. This attitude was deeply ingrained. When many of us were young children, our teachers told us that if we ever got lots, we should look for a police officer, because policemen are our friends. Today, many people see police officers as a necessary evil at best. They no longer get the benefit of the doubt, and prosecutors know that.
This combination gives a Minnesota DWI lawyer some leverage that wasn’t there in the early 2000s. Because jurors are more likely to side against police officers, prosecutors are more likely to offer favorable plea bargain arrangements. This plea bargain usually means a lesser charge and/or a reduced sentence.
After several decades of vacillating and dodging the issue, the Supreme Court finally legalized DWI roadblocks in 1990’s Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz. Normally, under the Bill of Rights, police officers must have reasonable suspicion to detain motorists for any reason. But this case specifically exempts DWI checkpoints from this requirement, as long as these checkpoints meet certain legal standards. Some of these requirements include:
- Supervisor Setup: Patrol officers cannot randomly decide to set up a DWI checkpoint. Only a high-level supervisor, like a police chief, has this authority. Lower-level supervisors, like captains and lieutenants, probably don’t have this power, although the law is a bit uncertain on this point.
- No Officer Discretion: The supervisor cannot simply authorize a checkpoint and walk away. The supervisor must also set out details, such as specific location and checkpoint duration. The only exception is usually the manner of stopping individual vehicles. More on that below.
- General Location: This requirement is more of an informal requirement, although Sitz hints at it. Almost all DWI defendants are White. If a checkpoint is in a predominantly Black neighborhood, either a judge could invalidate the roadblock or jurors might view it as a gigantic pretext stop. That’s especially true if officers at the checkpoint made a significant number of non-DWI arrests.
- Individual Stop Duration: As a general rule, if individual motorists wait in line longer than about twenty seconds, the detention is illegally long. So, to keep traffic moving, checkpoint officers can usually adjust the formula. For example, instead of stopping every other vehicle, they may detain every fourth vehicle.
Checkpoints are not “random” in the sense that officers cannot randomly pull over motorists who act nervous or otherwise don’t look right. Officers must stick to the formula no matter what.
On a related note, motorists have rights at DWI checkpoints. They must obey basic “stop” and “go” commands. They must also produce a drivers’ license and proof of insurance. However, they do not need to answer questions. In fact, they don’t even have to roll down their windows.
Generally, police officers love DWI roadblocks. If they weren’t so expensive, most departments would probably set up DWI checkpoints every weekend.
This acronym stands for Special Traffic Enforcement Programs. Program specifics vary, but generally, a supervisor redirects officers to a certain location and instructs them to enforce a certain law, like the DWI law. These campaigns often have catchy marketing names, like “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.” Typically, the state pays officer overtime and other program expenses.
There’s an old saying that if you are looking for something, you will find it. As mentioned, STEP campaign officers are usually looking for intoxicated motorists. So, that’s what they will find, even if the evidence of intoxication is rather shaky.
Speaking of evidence, the stop is usually not the only issue in a STEP campaign. Since officers are under so much pressure to make DWI arrests, they often rush through the walk-and-turn and other field sobriety tests. They might even skip them altogether. If that happens, the case is very difficult to prove in court.
About the Author
Gerald Miller is the principal attorney in Gerald Miller, P.A., a Minnesota DWI defense firm. He has over thirty-five years of experience in this area. Gerald has been recognized repeatedly over the years for his contributions to DWI defense and his successful representation of defendants. Click here for more information.
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