Thursday, November 30, 2023

Sobriety checkpoints: The pros and cons of disclosing time, location

Should police inform the public when and where they're planning to conduct a sobriety checkpoint? A W&M law professor says it could help. (file photo)
Should police inform the public when and where they’re planning to conduct a sobriety checkpoint? A W&M law professor says it could help. (file photo)

Several times each year, police departments set up safety and sobriety checkpoints to catch unsuspecting motorists driving illegally.

Designed to deter people from driving drunk and catch those who choose to take the risk, police checkpoint locations and times are often not advertised to the public in advance. Some departments do share geographic information, but many, including police in the Historic Triangle, do not.

While police may argue against the idea of advertising checkpoint details ahead of time, a William & Mary professor says it could ultimately benefit the department, limiting their intrusion into people’s lives and ensuring the lawfulness of the search under the Fourth Amendment.

When WYDaily asked local police whether they release information about sobriety and safety checkpoints, department representatives said it’s not general practice to release information about the time and place of sobriety checkpoints.

Virginia State Police spokeswoman Sgt. Michelle Anaya said notifying the public of sobriety checkpoints would be “counterproductive.”

“Our main concern is the safety of the public,” Anaya said.

In the last 12 months, there have been 7,020 alcohol-related crashes in Virginia, resulting in 194 deaths, according to data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

In the Historic Triangle — consisting of James City County, York County and the City of Williamsburg — there were 117 alcohol-related crashes, eight of which resulted in fatalities.

What makes sobriety checkpoints legal?

Anaya said the location of sobriety checkpoints are chosen based on crash and arrest statistics, as well as law enforcement officer and motorist safety factors.

Sobriety checkpoints will not be located on interstates or highways where traffic speeds or other conditions would pose a safety threat to those involved in the sobriety checkpoint, Anaya said.

That said, checkpoints may be located on highway access ramps.

The purpose of sobriety checkpoints, James City County Police spokeswoman Stephanie Williams said, is “to deter drinking and driving but also to enforce drinking and driving laws.”

Local departments, including the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office, said notifying the public about checkpoints may allow illegal drivers to detour around, which is a safety hazard.

“By providing notice to the public, those that are breaking the law are given the opportunity to potentially avoid a checkpoint,” Williams said.

As such, planned sobriety checkpoints are often designed to either stop every driver or a fixed percentage of drivers, such as every fifth car, according to Adam Gershowitz, associate dean and law professor at William & Mary Law School.

While police searches without a warrant are otherwise illegal, Gershowitz said these checkpoints are allowed by courts.

“These searches without suspicion are allowed because they are designed with a public safety purpose,” Gershowitz said. “But we have to have some restriction on that.”  

Gershowitz said that these searches must pass two criteria to maintain their legality: is the checkpoint likely to work and what level of citizen intrusiveness will exist?

Level of intrusiveness

While Gershowitz said courts have not mandated that police departments specify the location of an upcoming checkpoint, doing so could minimize the level of intrusiveness to residents.

“It’s a wise thing to do because it’s otherwise kind of difficult to lower the level of intrusiveness,” Gershowitz said.

Even if a motorist stopped by a checkpoint isn’t driving illegally, the stop can cause anxiety, cause motorists to be late to their destinations or cause distress.

Spokesman Maj. Greg Riley said the Williamsburg Police Department does not notify the public when there is a checkpoint scheduled for a certain area, but aims to “minimize our intrusion into the driver’s life and to process them through as quick as possible.”

York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shelley Ward said social media allows information to spread about the time and place of sobriety checkpoints, even if the sheriff’s office does not publicize the checkpoint location.

“With the obvious increase in social media over the years, once a few people go through the checkpoint, it ends up all over the internet anyway,” Ward said. “No matter what you want to deter the drunk driving. Hopefully, you’ll deter people not to drive drunk, versus them taking a detour.”

By releasing more information ahead of each checkpoint, police departments are effectively decreasing stress levels for motorists while potentially boosting conviction rates for motorists arrested during sobriety checkpoints, Gershowitz said.

Gershowitz added that sharing the information would also help to ensure the lawfulness of such stops under the Fourth Amendment.

“It’s also a good practice to undertake for protecting a citizen’s rights under the Fourth Amendment and to ensure the checkpoint is constitutional,” Gershowitz said. “Departments take a risk by sharing the information. If they catch a person who is drunk and the department didn’t previously release the checkpoint information, that person could potentially argue that the stop doesn’t comply with the fourth amendment.”

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This article was published in partnership with WYDaily’s sister publication, Southside Daily.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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