Public Service or Obstruction of Justice?

Impaired driving checkpoints work because they scare people—not because they ensnare people. Sure, a few people are arrested for DWI at such checkpoints. But many more are deterred from driving after they’ve had too much to drink because of the perception that they might be subject to a random and surprise stop. In fact, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program has said that checkpoints “must be widely publicized, since the primary goal, and primary benefit is to discourage individuals from driving after they have been drinking.”

But concerns have arisen that the effectiveness of DWI checkpoints easily can be undermined in this age of social media and instant communication.  If drivers believe they can readily learn of checkpoints’ location and thereby avoid being stopped, the efficacy of this safety measure presumably will decrease.

Several mobile apps purport to alert drivers of checkpoint locations. A San Diego news station reported that about 10,000 people downloaded the app “Mr. Checkpoint,” before New Year’s Eve last year.  The developer of that app, which provides notice of checkpoint locations in California, claims that it discourages drinking and driving, rather than working at cross-purposes with police. Closer to home, a Facebook page called Police Roadblocks in Wilmington, NC Area,” invites area drivers to share the locations of checkpoints they encounter.  The page states that its purpose is not “to encourage driving under the influence,” but to help people “avoid the hassle of the currently legal but questionable tactics that police currently employ.” Wilmington news station WECT recently reported one law enforcement officer’s positive take on the site.  Sergeant Jerry Brewer was quoted as saying:  “We hope you see that and go, ‘I don’t need to drive’ or ‘Hey you need to drive because I’ve had too many to drink’ . . . We’re hoping it’s a positive thing and not a negative thing to go ‘Oh well, I’ll try to go around it’ because we plan for that also.”  Besides, Sgt. Brewer opined that it would be hard to get in trouble for sharing the location of a checkpoint on social media because it is considered public information.

Other law enforcement agencies have proven less sanguine.  An Ohio man reportedly was charged with a crime last Friday night for displaying a sign that said:   “Check point ahead turn now.”

Could checkpoint canary be similarly cited in NC?  Perhaps for resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer in violation of G.S. 14-223? I haven’t discovered any North Carolina appellate court cases in which a person was charged with this crime for alerting others to the presence of police, though other jurisdictions have considered similar charges. Compare People v. Case, 365 N.E.2d 872, 873 (N.Y. Ct. App. 1977) (holding that CB radio message from one driver to another as to the location of a radar speed checkpoint does not constitute the crime of obstructing governmental administration; explaining “[t]o say that there is a Smokey takin’ pictures up the road does not subject the speaker to a year’s imprisonment”) with In re Davan L., 689 N.E.2d 909, 910 (N.Y. Ct. App. 1997) (juvenile’s pedaling of his bicycle in front of storefront where police were carrying out undercover drug buy while yelling “cops, cops . . . . watch out, five-0, police are coming,” were acts that, if committed by an adult, would constitute the crime of obstructing governmental administration). Readers, if you know of such prosecutions, please share your tale via the comment feature below.  The checkpoint warning debate raises the same issues as the old controversy about whether one may permissibly flash headlights to warn of police presence, so if you know of prosecutions or vehicle stops for that conduct, let us know about that too.