In Commonwealth v. Garibay, 758 WDA 2012, the Pennsylvania Superior Court, sitting en banc, held that the Commonwealth must produce, by testimony or actual documentation, statistics, data or reports to support the choice of location, timing, and duration of a vehicle-stop checkpoint in order to meet the “reasonableness” standard required for seizures under the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions. Where such information is not properly produced, the evidence pertaining and resulting from the stop must be suppressed.
On November 19, 2009, the City of Pittsburgh police set up a checkpoint in coordination with the Department of Transportation’s “Click-It-or-Ticket” program. The specific location for the checkpoint was chosen by virtue of its status as a high traffic volume and accident-prone area. Garibay entered the checkpoint at 9:05 PM. Loud noises generated by the defendant’s minivan attracted police attention. Their subsequent interaction with Garibay led them to believe he was under the influence of marijuana. After failing field sobriety tests, the police put him under arrest. A search incident to the arrest yielded drug paraphernalia. They tested a sample of his blood which was positive for THC.
At his suppression hearing, Garibay argued that the police did not comply with the Tarbert/Blouse guidelines for checkpoints, named after the cases establishing them. Disagreeing, the trial court denied the suppression and Garibay was ultimately convicted of DUI after a bench trial.
The court addressed the question of whether the Commonwealth can sustain its burden of proof at a suppression hearing challenging the constitutionality of a checkpoint where the Commonwealth fails to produce documentary or testimonial evidence specifying the reports, data, or statistics relied upon by the police in selecting the location and timing of the checkpoint. Initially, the court noted that the stopping of an automobile and the detention of its occupants is a seizure subject to constitutional restraints. Although the state’s Motor Vehicle Code allows for police checkpoints, these intrusions must be “balanced against the government’s promotion of legitimate interests in order to protect individuals from arbitrary invasions at the unfettered discretion of officers in the field.”
The Tarbert/Blouse guidelines provide police with the necessary rules for establishing a checkpoint that minimizes the intrusiveness of a roadblock seizure to a constitutionally acceptable level. Among the specific guidelines are that “the choice of time and place for the checkpoint must be based on local experience as to where and when intoxicated drivers are likely to be driving” and that specific decisions as to which vehicles to stop “must be established by administratively pre-fixed, objective standards, and must not be left to the unfettered discretion of officers in the field.” While some Tarbert/Blouse case law discusses the guidelines in terms of DUI-checkpoints, the Garibay court makes it clear that they must be applied to all types of checkpoints.
In Garibay, only one officer testified generally as to why the specific location for the checkpoint was selected. He did not provide any testimony regarding the number of prior safety violations and/or accidents. Similarly, the officer failed to provide any testimony regarding the objective basis for the checkpoint’s timing and duration. Although the Garibay majority notes that actual documentation is not necessary, it found that the lack of any specifics in the officer’s testimony regarding accidents, arrests, citations, timing, or duration failed to meet the burden of proof necessary to avoid suppression.
Checkpoints serve an important governmental interest, but not at the expense of constitutional rights. This decision maintains a real bar of “reasonableness” for the government to have the authority to intrude on an individual’s privacy via checkpoints.
Dissenting, Judge Ott, joined by Judges Allen and Stabile, would have held that the Tarbert/Blouse guidelines were met in this case based on what the dissenters believed should have been a more-forgiving standard of review of the trial court’s decision.