Sobriety checkpoints have come under scrutiny by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court recently. A sobriety checkpoint is a spot set up by police from various towns for the purpose of screening drivers. All the vehicles passing that point are pulled over, licenses and registrations checked, and the driver’s behavior observed. If a driver exhibits behaviors or speech patterns that indicate he or she has been drinking or doing drugs, that driver is directed to a nearby area and asked to perform field sobriety tests. Municipalities band together to set these up in part as a way to fight drunk driving on a large scale.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has declared these checkpoints illegal, unless they have the approval of the elected officials of the municipalities involved.
The Court’s decision came about through a case that was presented before them of a woman who came to a sobriety checkpoint outside of Star Lake Amphitheater, now called Key Bank Pavilion, in 2013. She was arrested and charged with driving under the influence, and later convicted.
The checkpoint in her case was one that involved officers from sixteen different municipalities who were part of the West Hills DUI Task Force. None of them had an ordinance, voted on and approved by elected officials, authorizing them to set up and take part in the checkpoint.
DUI defense attorney Michael Sherman, who represented the woman, named Molly Hlubin, said in an interview with KDKA’s political editor, Jon Delano, that the police had no authority to pull anyone over in Hlubin’s case, because elected officials had no say in the matter.
Sherman thinks the Supreme Court’s determination will affect thousands of people. Their cases could get tossed out and their convictions reversed if they were charged via a multi-town DUI task force. There are several of these task forces in the region. Their purpose includes making drivers more aware of DUI and highlighting the fact that cops are looking for drunk drivers.
The task forces have been effective, so it’s likely towns and boroughs will begin passing ordinances that authorize the checkpoints. The West Hills DUI Task Force has made 700 arrests in the last 15 years, getting drugged and drunk drivers off the roads. That’s a powerful testament to just how well they work, and I would imagine it would be hard for an elected official to ignore the need for them.
Local police departments can still set up their own sobriety checkpoints, of course. It’s legal for them to do so, and many will. They are eager to slow the flood of DUI’s, and checkpoints are the best way for them to screen large numbers of drivers in a short period of time. As for Molly Hlubin, her conviction and arrest have been tossed out by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Hlubin is from Buffalo, New York, and when she was convicted, that state was notified by Pennsylvania, because both states are part of the Driver License Compact. This compact is a multi-state agreement to share DUI information, and it means that traffic violations of all kinds follow a driver back to their home state. She faced similar consequences at home that she was facing in Pennsylvania.
For Hlubin, the evacuation of her arrest and conviction means that she will not face jail time or any other penalty in Pennsylvania. I’m not sure what New York will do with it now, though I would imagine they’d also give her back driving privileges and anything else that was taken away.
As a Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney, I know just how common drinking and driving is, and how many drivers are caught using checkpoints. I think the Supreme Court has a valid opinion on this matter, but I don’t see their decision slowing the Task Forces down for long. As noted above, once official word of this reaches officials, we’ll start seeing a plethora of ordinances authorizing the Task Forces and their checkpoints.