Supreme Court reverses sobriety checkpoint conviction | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Supreme Court reverses sobriety checkpoint conviction

Posted By on Thu, Oct 20, 2016 at 10:50 AM

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The Arkansas Supreme Court today reversed a DWI conviction in Sebastian County because the highway sobriety checkpoint was unconstitutionally operated. The decision set a standard for such checkpoints in the future.

Jeremy Whalen challenged his first offense  conviction in 2012 on the ground that the State Police sobriety checkpoint was unconstitutional. The Arkansas Court of Appeals agreed and overturned the conviction, but the Supreme Court was asked to review that decision by the state because of, among others, a need for clarification and "substantial public interest."

Cpl. Dwight Lee testified that sobriety checkpoints were set up most weekends, generally at a trooper's discretion, and information was compiled about them after the fact.

Whalen argued that the checkpoint wasn't conducted according to a "neutral and explicit" plan and individual officers had too much discretion in the operation. The state argued that the stop was conducted in compliance with State Police policies and procedures. But the Supreme Court refused the state's request to take judicial notice of State Police Policies and Procedures Manuals of 2012 and 2015 because they were not before the circuit court in this case.

The Arkansas Supreme Court held that the checkpoint didn't meet the test set out in U.S. Supreme Court rulings for vehicle stops made for less than reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Whalen was stopped at a checkpoint on an Interstate 540 exit ramp. An officer said he smelled alcohol and Whalen refused a breath test.

The Arkansas court said the state had failed to show that this checkpoint was carried out pursuant to a previously established objective and neutral plan that was designed by supervising officers.  Cpl. Lee testified  that it was set up without such input. The court said it also found merit in Whalen's argument that the field officer exercised unfettered discretion. 

Without evidence of  criminal conduct, the checkpoint stop was unreasonable and so the conviction was reversed, with the case remanded to circuit court for dismissal.

Chief Justice Howard Brill and Justice Rhonda Wood joined in a concurring opinion supporting the reversal of the conviction in this case, but objecting to the majority's adoption of a Tennessee case's standard for review of  checkpoints. It lists two factors necessary to show a field officer's discretion was sufficiently limited: 1) the decision to set up a roadblock was not made by the officers establishing the checkpoint, and 2) the officers on the scene cannot decide procedures for themselves.

An opinion written by Wood said this would erode local discretion. "Neither the United States Constitution nor the Arkansas Constitution requires us to adopt factors that will inevitably result in micromanaging law enforcement."

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