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Home » Cases of Note » WILLIAMS v. STATE – A12A1116 – Free Roadblocks For Everyone! – Constitutional Constraints on Illegal Sobriety Checkpoints Go Through the Wringer

WILLIAMS v. STATE – A12A1116 – Free Roadblocks For Everyone! – Constitutional Constraints on Illegal Sobriety Checkpoints Go Through the Wringer

At around 2:00 a.m. officers of the Bibb County Police “HEAT” unit stopped James Williams at a roadblock. The officers observed that Williams was intoxicated and arrested him for suspicion of DUI. On appeal, Williams does not argue the factual findings of the court but contends that the trial court erred when it denied his motion to suppress the evidence gathered at the roadblock. Williams argues that since the checkpoint was implemented by a field officer rather than a supervisor acting at the programmatic level, the checkpoint was an illegal search and seizure.

According to the precedent established in Martin v. State, 313 Ga.App. (2011), roadblocks, in essence, violate citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights. Sans “legitimate law enforcement objectives” they are “roving patrols in which officers exercise unfettered discretion to stop drivers in the absence of articulable suspicion.” Ibid. To be deemed a “legitimate law enforcement objective” the State must show that a roadblock was implemented “at the programmatic level for a legitimate primary purpose,” Thomas v. State, 277 Ga.App. (2005), as well as meet five criteria, Lafontaine v. State, 269 Ga. (1998):

  1. The decision to implement the roadblock was made by supervisory personnel,
  2. all vehicles must be stopped,
  3. there is a minimal delay to motorists
  4. the roadblock is easily identifiable as a police checkpoint, and
  5. any screening officer’s training is sufficient for him or her to determine which motorists should be given field sobriety tests.

Williams argues that the decision to implement the roadblock was not made by supervisory personnel and that the decision to implement the roadblock was not made at the “programmatic level with a legitimate primary purpose.”

The undisputed evidence shows that the decision to implement the roadblock was made by Sergeant Bruce Jordan, who was given the supervisory authority of the “HEAT” unit in 2009 by its commanding officer, Captain Henry Colbert. Colbert verbally instructed Jordan as to his expectations for a proper roadblock, the purposes for designating roadblocks, and the proper methods of supervision. Colbert placed limits on when and where Jordan could conduct roadblocks but did not limit him as to the number of roadblocks he could conduct. Once given supervisory standing, Jordan was not required to report to Colbert prior to or after conducting a roadblock. If a roadblock did not require the use of officers outside of the “HEAT” unit, Jordan had no written guidelines for the implementation of roadblocks and he personally did not keep any written records. Jordan testified that he implemented the roadblock in question as a license and sobriety check, that he decided to implement it at the start of his shift, and that he informed the officers to participate in the checkpoint an hour before it was conducted. To minimize delay, Jordan participated in the screening of motorists when necessary.

First, Williams contends that the decision to implement the roadblock was made by a field officer rather than supervisory personnel because Jordan participated in the roadblock. Despite other favorable rulings, State v. Brown 315, Ga. App (2012) established that an officer may act as a screener in a roadblock and still function in a supervisory role. For this reason, the Court rules against Williams’ first argument.

Second, Williams contends that the roadblock was not designated a legitimate primary purpose at the programmatic level as there was no proof of a detailed program, plan, or schedule from Colbert for implementing roadblocks. Citing the Supreme Court case City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, the Court frames the Williams argument as “whether the decision to implement the checkpoint in question was made by supervisory officers in the field and the supervisors had a legitimate primary purpose.”

In response, the Court notes that the evidence supported that Jordan acted as supervisory personnel in accordance with Captain Colbert’s initial instruction when implementing the roadblocks; therefore, a program or plan from Colbert was not necessary. In Jacobs v. State 308, Ga.App (2011), a case with similar facts, the court determined that a supervisor acting without prior written or verbal approval from his or her superiors could still implement a roadblock at the programmatic level with a legitimate primary purpose because he or she was following a superior’s directive. The Court found that Jordan’s decision to implement the roadblock fell within the scope of Jacobs and that since there was no evidence to suggest that Jordan’s decision was made spontaneously, or that the roadblock resembled a roving patrol, Williams’ argument fails.

Though the Court cites established precedent and uses it to build a logical argument against Williams’ appeal, there remains a central question only partially answered: what, exactly, does it mean for supervisory personnel to implement a roadblock on the programmatic level? According to Jacobs, an officer who is directed by his superiors, without any instruction beyond such directive, functions as supervisory personnel. In light of Williams, an officer can be directed to conduct roadblocks without a schedule or plan, without any written guidelines or records, and be deemed supervisory personnel making planned decisions at the programmatic level. So, if a roadblock can be implemented by an officer “at the programmatic level with a legitimate primary purpose” without any written guidelines, limitations as to the number of roadblocks to be implemented, a set time constraint between the decision to conduct a roadblock and actual conducting it, or a clear division between supervisor and acting field officer, how “unfettered” must the discretion be for a roadblock to be illegal?