Drunk-driving roadblocks okayed by Mass. high court

sobrietyPolice can stop motorists at a roadblock and direct those they suspect of being drunk to a secondary screening area where they can be given field sobriety tests, the state’s highest court recently decided.

However, police can’t direct a motorist to a secondary stop unless they have a “reasonable” suspicion that the driver is drunk, and can point to specific facts backing up that suspicion, the court said.

A mere hunch that a driver is intoxicated or is doing something else wrong isn’t enough.

If the police don’t have a good reason for sending someone to further screening, any evidence they find at the second screening –whether of drunk driving or of any other crime – can’t be used against the person in court.

A reasonable suspicion can be based on a driver’s glassy eyes or slurred speech, a smell of alcohol in the car, or an open container of alcohol in plain view.

Police can also detain a driver if they see clear evidence of a felony in the car.

The case resolves what had been a growing controversy in the state. Supporters of tougher measures against drunk drivers had welcomed the police roadblocks, saying they helped to catch drunk drivers and deterred others from getting on the road in the first place.

But others had worried that “double screening” roadblocks would allow the police to stop, delay and search motorists for no good reason.

Police might, they argued, detain drivers because of their race or ethnicity, or because they didn’t like the look of a particular driver or disagreed with a political opinion on a bumper-sticker. They might also detain drivers if they suspected them of drug use – based on their youth or appearance, for instance – even if there was no actual evidence of drugs.

The high court split the difference by saying that the roadblocks are okay, but police can’t detain anyone for a secondary screening unless they are able to provide a good, specific reason for doing so.

The court also said that police can set up roadblocks for drunk driving, but they can’t set them up for other types of crimes – such as drug possession – because those crimes have nothing to do with driving.