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.



8 thoughts on “Public Service or Obstruction of Justice?”

  1. YA forget about the fundamental law of probable cause. Be sure to never enforce that. Forget about any unalienable right to move about freely without any ‘unwarranted intrusions into your private life’ for the good of the whole.

  2. I hope the 1st paragraph of this article is not the author’s opinion, if so it’s disappointing. It truly concerns me that educated, (legally educated), folks don’t see the fundamental invasion of liberty which occurs every time the government restricts someone’s freedom of movement. These aren’t “safety” stops, they are criminal investigations when there is no reasonable and articulable suspicion to believe that anyone has committed a crime. If it were for the purposes which the author stated (deterrence) then why don’t the police park in the parking lot of longhorn, outback, etc. and casually greet people as they leave & say “hey folks, Captian smith here from the local pd, just want you guys to have a safe ride home, hope whoever is driving didn’t have too much to drink, but if they did, please let us call you a cab, we don’t want to see anybody get hurt or get in trouble, we got a lot of officers out there tonight, now can I help any of you make that call?” But it’s the attitude of, the government will do what’s best for me, the police are on my side and are looking out for my best interest, etc. that is most disappointing when I read this article. For for those of you who believe that, you keep believing it. I will trust in myself and my rights as a citizen to make the best decision for me, no thanks government enforcers. I could go on, but I won’t. Just tell me how a “DWI checkpoint is any different than a Natzi/Russian checkpoint “show me your papers” in East Berlin?

  3. Speech is protected. The quintessential protected free speech is criticism of the government. Warning people about adverse government action is just one step below criticizing the government and is firmly protected speech. It is embarrassing that anyone ostensibly working on the side of the law would try to silence this type of speech.

  4. How is this even a question? It is my understanding that certain checkpoints MUST be published in local newspapers on the day of the checkpoint to pass Constitutional muster, so how is this any different? Possibly the guy presenting a sign goes to another level, but to me the phone apps are just an extension of publishing public information to new technologies, to wit, few read newspapers anymore so how else will news get disseminated?

  5. This is protected speech all day long. To not allow citizens to discuss and share information regarding ongoing, public police activities seems a perverse and dangerous result. Perhaps the apparent dearth of prosecutions is some evidence that NC prosecutors agree?? I’ve never heard of any such prosecution in our state. Seems a lot like filming ongoing police activities….a LEO may get upset and maybe detains you, but my sense is that not a lot of this ends up before a judge.

    • If you visit ”” you will see many examples , although not many in NC, of cases going to court and with predictable dismissals often at the appeals stage..prosecutors want to back up the cops rather than look at established law and justice.

      LEO’s ” getting upset ” and detaining you for public filming where no right to privacy exists is a crime. if 1983 suits could be made easier to file, especially for pro se litigants, we would see a decline in abusive police pratices when a few of them pay damages and fees from their pockets, with no immunity.

      As long as the holder of a sign is in a legal area to stand in the cops have no business bothering anyone due to the content of the sign. If the sign said ” More Pay for Police” does anyone believe that the cops would hassle them?


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