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STINSON V. STATE – A12A1592: In the Vicinity of a Roadblock? Beware! Police Have Greater Discretion Than Normal

On May 14, 2011, at around 1:47 a.m. the Jonesboro and Clayton County Police Departments were conducting a roadblock on Lake Jodeco Road in Clayton County. Stinson’s pickup truck crested a hill that obscured the roadblock, and upon noticing the checkpoint he “stopped very suddenly and made a very sharp right turn” onto an adjacent road. An officer manning the roadblock pursued Stinson and found the truck parked on the shoulder of the road. Stinson had exited the truck and was staggering on the side of the road. Reportedly, at one point he stumbled into the truck’s rear fender. More officers arrived at the scene and noticed the smell of alcohol on Stinson. He admitted to having had two beers earlier in the evening. During the horizontal gaze nystagmus and walk and turn test Stinson reportedly showed signs of impairment. A preliminary breath test came back positive for alcohol ingestion. Stinson was arrested and read his implied consent rights. He agreed to take a state-administered breath test, which indicated an average BAC of .121. Stinson contends that the initial stop was unlawful because there was no evidence of a traffic offense; therefore, the evidence gathered thereafter is inadmissible. The Appeals Court disagrees.

Citing O’ Neal v. State (2005) Ga. App. the Court outlines the “three tiers of police-citizen encounters: (1) consensual encounters; (2) brief investigatory stops that require reasonable suspicion; and (3) arrests that must be supported by probable cause.” The circumstances surrounding Stinson’s arrest indicate that it was a tier 2 encounter. But to justify Stinson’s seizure the State is required to show that the officers had a “particularized, objective basis for suspecting that Stinson was involved in criminal activity,” that “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant [an] intrusion.” Satterfield v. State Ga.App. (2008).

Though Stinson did not commit a traffic offense, according to the framework of Satterfield there were grounds for a traffic stop. The Court notes that the evidence showed that “Stinson made an abrupt, furtive maneuver in his vehicle to evade the roadblock,” which was a “sufficiently suspicious and deliberately furtive response […] to give the officer at least a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity,” Jones v. State (2003). Accordingly, the Court deemed that the search and seizure were lawful.

The legality of roadblocks is still highly contentious. In Michigan v. Sitz (1990) the Supreme Court ruled that roadblocks were legal under the Fourth Amendment if conducted properly, but left the specific procedural requirements for the states to decide. More than anything this decision has created an abundance of “legalese” and hair-splitting as to the description and interpretation of such requirements. For instance, for a roadblock to be legal in Georgia it must be “implemented by supervisory personnel at the programmatic level with a legitimate primary purpose,” Thomas v. State Ga.App. (2005). Beyond the opaque language, the Court even admits there is no precise definition for what it means for a decision to be made at the “programmatic level,” Jones v. State Ga. Sup. (2011), though they still make decisions as to what is or isn’t a programmatic decision. Recently, In Williams v State Ga. App. (2012), arguably the Appeals Court established an incredible amount of latitude when considering who is supervisory personnel and what is a decision at the programmatic level. The concern, in Williams and Stinson, is that the extension of precedent from the base legality of roadblocks allows police greater-than-normal discretion in conducting arrests.

According to the record, Stinson evaded the roadblock by taking a sharp right turn. The police followed him and then found him staggering by the side of the road. Outside the purview of the roadblock, none of Stinson’s actions are illegal, and there is no specific traffic ticket for evading a roadblock. So, beyond the latitude afforded to police in implementing roadblocks furthered by Williams, Stinson solidifies grounds for a tier 2 police-citizen encounter that applies only to individuals in the general area of a roadblock. Any such specific allowance for police discretion deserves question and attention.

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