The court of appeals reversed a defendant’s DWI conviction yesterday in State v. Ashworth, __ N.C. App. __ (August 2, 2016), on the basis that the trial court plainly erred in holding that the driver’s license checkpoint at which the defendant was stopped was appropriately tailored and advanced the public interest. Unlike some checkpoint cases in which you can see the trouble coming in the recitation of facts, Ashworth is a pretty routine checkpoint case. Two officers with the State Highway Patrol set up the checkpoint to look for driver’s license and other traffic violations. The highway patrol had a checkpoint policy that the officers followed. A supervisor approved the checkpoint. The defendant admitted that he had been drinking almost immediately after he stopped at the checkpoint. So where did the trial court go wrong?
The facts. A detective with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department writes a plan for a checkpoint to be conducted later in the evening. The plan states that the checkpoint will be established at the intersection of Ashley Road and Joy Street in Charlotte, NC. The plan states that the checkpoint’s purpose is to increase police presence in the targeted area while checking for driver’s license and vehicle registration violations. The plan further states that all vehicles traveling through the checkpoint must be stopped unless the officer in charge determines that a hazard has developed or an unreasonable delay is occurring. If that situation arises, all vehicles must be allowed to pass through until the hazard or delay is cleared.
The checkpoint is conducted from 12:34 a.m. to 1:52 a.m. on the designated evening. Every vehicle that travels through the checkpoint is stopped, and the officers ask every driver for his or her driver’s license.
The question. A passenger in a car stopped at the checkpoint moves to suppress evidence obtained during the stop and subsequent search of the car, alleging that the checkpoint was unconstitutional.
If you were the court, how would you rule?