December 18, 2014

Is it legal to avoid DUI Roadblocks?

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Avoiding Roadblocks
Often, motorists will seek to avoid roadblocks for a variety of reasons. They may mistake a roadblock for a traffic accident and make a turn or a U-turn prior to reaching the "entrance." Likewise, motorists may recognize the roadblock for what it is-a roadblock-and seek to avoid it for no reason at all. Officers use such "avoidance maneuvers" to justify reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop on the innocent motorist who, for example, made a U-turn instead of continuing forward into the roadblock. Until recently, the simple act of avoiding a roadblock may itself have constituted reasonable suspicion that a criminal offense had been or was about to be committed, thus justifying a stop of the vehicle. People v. Scott, 277 Ill. App. 3d 579, 584 (3rd Dist. 1996). But recently, the Third District Court of Illinois ruled that a motorist can legally avoid a roadblock.

DUI Roadblocks
A DUI roadblock (also known as a sobriety checkpoint or a "roadside safety check") is a police position on a roadway set up to stop vehicles for the purpose of cracking down on impaired motorists. They are set up on random roadways, at random times, and on random dates. Roadblocks usually share the same characteristics as traffic accidents: the presence of police and emergency vehicles; several sets of flashing emergency lights; orange traffic cones; and backed-up traffic.

A police officer is entitled to briefly stop a person to investigate if, given the totality of the circumstances, the officer has specific, articulable facts, taken together with rational inferences from the facts, that warrant the intrusion. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21 (1968) (emphasis added). DUI roadblocks are a "seizure," and they are legal if the intrusion created by the police is limited, i.e., reasonable. In People v. Bartley, the Illinois Supreme Court held that "[t]he [DUI] problem is so serious that . . . we hold that this interest is compelling and will therefore justify some intrusion on the unfettered movement of traffic in order to reduce alcohol-related accidents and deter driving under the influence." 109 Ill. 2d 273, 285 (1985). See also Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990). The Bartley Court further held that a DUI roadblock does not violate the Fourth Amendment even where the officer has no individualized suspicion. Bartley, 109 Ill. 2d at 280 (emphasis added).

People of the State of Illinois v. Timmsen
Enter People v. Timmsen. In Timmsen, the Appellate Court held that police officers lacked reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop on a motorist who made a legal U-turn prior to reaching the entrance of a DUI roadblock. 2014 IL App. 3d 120481, 14 N.E.3d 1267, 1271 (3rd Dist. 2014). The motorist was driving eastbound on a four-lane highway when he saw a police roadblock ahead of him. The motorist signaled and then made a U-turn at a railroad crossing approximately 50 feet from where officers were stationed. One of the officers stopped the motorist after he made the U-turn and was traveling westbound on the highway. Id. at 1268-1269. The motorist was arrested for driving while his license was suspended. Id. at 1269.

On appeal, the State conceded that the motorist did not violate any traffic laws, but argued nonetheless that the motorist's attempt to avoid the roadblock gave the officer reasonable, articulable suspicion to conduct the stop. Id. at 1269 (emphasis added). The Appellate Court disagreed, finding:

"Although a U-turn may be more uncommon than a turn at an intersection or an exit, the defendant's legal traffic maneuver only raised the suspicion that he was attempting to avoid contact with the police." Id. at 1271.

Actions Taken Which May Justify a Stop
There exist, however, actions that when taken by a motorist and coupled with the act of avoiding a roadblock, can create a reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop. The Timmsen Court revisited its decision in People v. Scott, where it gave three examples of such actions: (1) when a vehicle fails to stop at the roadblock; (2) when a vehicle stops just before the roadblock and the driver and passenger change places; and (3) when a vehicle avoids the roadblock in a suspicious manner. Timmsen, 2014 IL App. 3d 120481 (citing People v. Scott, 277 Ill. App. 3d 579, 584 (3rd Dist. 1996)). Notably, the Timmsen Court took care to emphasize that the mere act of avoiding a roadblock is generally not sufficient to constitute reasonable suspicion by itself, and must be coupled with other articulable facts. Timmsen, 2014 IL App. 3d 120481. The Court found that none of the above factors were present: "Looking at the totality of the circumstances, we find there were no factors to suggest that the defendant was doing any more than going about his business. Although the legality of the defendant's traffic maneuver was but one factor to consider, there were no other facts suggesting that it was a high-crime area, nor facts suggesting flight, such as speeding, squealing tires, or spraying gravel." Id. at 1271.

The take-away point from Timmsen is that an officer cannot stop a motorist for making a legal U-turn near the entrance of a roadblock even if the officer thinks that the motorist is trying to purposefully avoid the roadblock. Effective DUI lawyers should be able to raise this defense for people stopped and arrested for avoiding a DUI or sobriety roadblock.

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