©2012 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
On September 24, 2012, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided Williams v. State [i], which serves as an excellent review of constitutional law and Georgia law regarding roadblocks. The facts of Williams, taken directly from the case are as follows:
The evidence shows that the decision to implement the roadblock was made solely by Sergeant Bruce Jordan, a supervisory officer of the Bibb County HEAT unit, a state-funded patrol whose main purpose is conducting sobriety checks. Captain Henry Colbert, the HEAT unit’s commanding officer, gave Jordan supervisory authority of the unit and its two field officers in 2009. Before delegating this authority, Colbert told Jordan his expectations for a proper roadblock, including the purposes for designating a roadblock and the expected method of supervision. Colbert also placed limits on when and where Jordan could conduct roadblocks and required him to have a specific reason for conducting the roadblocks. He did not limit the total number of roadblocks Jordan was authorized to conduct. Jordan frequently planned and helped conduct roadblocks. He was not required to seek prior input or approval from Colbert, nor was he required to report to Colbert after implementing the roadblocks. Unless the roadblocks involved officers outside of the HEAT unit, Jordan had no written guidelines detailing the requirements of each roadblock, nor did he keep written records.
Jordan testified that he implemented the roadblock at issue as a license and sobriety check, that he made the decision to do so at the start of his shift, and that about an hour prior to implementing the roadblock, he instructed two other officers to join him. When the officers needed to investigate multiple drivers simultaneously, Jordan participated directly in the investigations, including the investigation of Williams. [ii]
Williams filed a motion to suppress the evidence against him because he contended that the roadblock was implemented by a field officer rather than by a supervisor acting at the programmatic level. The trial court denied the motion to suppress and Williams appealed.
On appeal, Williams argued that (1) the roadblock was unconstitutional because it was initiated by a field officer rather than a supervisor at the programmatic level, and (2) the roadblock was not made for a legitimate purpose at the programmatic level because there was no detailed program, plan or schedule from the captain.
At the outset, the Court of Appeals noted several relevant rules that apply to Williams’ case. First, the citing the United States Supreme Court in City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, the court stated:
Stopping a vehicle at a roadblock is a seizure that violates the Fourth Amendment unless that stop is deemed reasonable. In general, such seizures are unreasonable absent an individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. As a result, roving patrols in which officers exercise unfettered discretion to stop drivers in the absence of articulable suspicion are unconstitutional[,] but . . . standardized highway checkpoints or roadblocks that serve legitimate law enforcement objectives are permissible under certain circumstances. [iii]
Additionally, the court stated:
A limited exception to the rule requiring individualized suspicion…allows standardized highway roadblocks if the State shows that supervisory officers implemented the roadblock “at the programmatic level for a legitimate primary purpose.” [iv]
The court of appeals then noted that the Supreme Court of Georgia has outlined five requirements for roadblocks to valid in Georgia. These requirements are as follows:
(1) The decision to implement the roadblock must be made by supervisory personnel rather than officers in the field;
(2) All vehicles must be stopped as opposed to random vehicle stops;
(3) The delay to motorists is minimal;
(4) The roadblock operation is well identified as a police checkpoint; and
(5) The screening officers’ training and experience is sufficient to qualify him to make an initial determination which motorists will be screened for DUI. [v]
The court of appeals then set out to decide whether the decision to implement the roadblock in Williams’ case was properly made by a supervisor rather than an officer in the field. Here, Sergeant Jordan decided to implement the roadblock based on authority that was delegated to him by Captain Colbert. Williams does not dispute this fact, but rather argues that because Sergeant Jordan participated in the roadblock when traffic backed up, he was more akin to a field officer than a supervisor. To this argument, the court stated:
[A]n officer may be a supervisor even if he or she screens a motorist at a roadblock. In the instant case, Jordan was present to supervise the roadblock, but did not interact with motorists when traffic was light. When traffic backed up, however, he assisted his subordinates to minimize delay to the public. Such action does not deprive Jordan of supervisory status. [vi]
The court went on to state that while it expressly approves of a supervising officer not participating in a roadblock, supervisors are not prevented from some participation such as done by Sergeant Jordan in this case. As such, the court held that Sergeant Jordan’s participation did not disqualify him as the supervising officer of roadblock at issue.
The court then set out to examine Williams’ second issue, particularly, whether the roadblock was implemented for a legitimate purpose at the programmatic level. To this issue the court stated
Although Georgia’s courts have yet to define precisely what it means for a decision to be rendered at the “programmatic level,” this term must be examined in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in City of Indianapolis v. Edmond. This Court determined that Edmond requires proof of the valid purpose of a roadblock as a constitutional prerequisite to the admissibility of evidence seized at a roadblock. Further, “Edmond now requires us to focus on the primary purpose decreed by the supervisors . . . what is required is ‘an inquiry into purpose at the programmatic level.'” In other words, at issue is whether “the decision to implement the checkpoint in question was made by supervisory officers in the field and [whether] the supervisors had a legitimate primary purpose.” Further, in the context of a supervisor who also serves as a field officer, the supervisor must have acted at an executive programmatic level, as opposed to as a field officer, at the time he or she issued advanceauthorization for the roadblock. [vii]
The court then examined facts relevant to this issue. First, Sergeant Jordan was acting in his capacity as a supervisor when he authorized the roadblock. Second, this decision was made in advance of the implementation of the roadblock (not a hasty, spur of the moment decision in the field). Third, the roadblock had the legitimate purpose of the HEAT unit’s mission, which was to establish a sobriety checkpoint for DUI enforcement. Fourth, Sergeant Jordan testified that he was authorized to plan and implement roadblocks. The court noted that his un-contradicted testimony was sufficient to establish this fact even without a written policy that authorized him to plan and implement roadblocks. Lastly, there was no evidence that the decision to implement the roadblock was made spontaneously in the field or that it was a roving patrol.
In light of the facts above, the court held that the roadblock was planned and implemented at the programmatic level with a legitimate purpose.
As such, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress and held that the roadblock in Williams’ case did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] 2012 Ga. App. LEXIS 788 (2012)
[ii] Id. at 4-5
[iii] Id. at 2 (see City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 37 (II), 40 (III) (121 SC 447, 148 LE2d 333) (2000); Martin v. State, 313 Ga. App. 226 (721 SE2d 180) (2011))
[iv] Id. (citing Thomas v. State, 277 Ga. App. 88, 89 (625 SE2d 455) (2005). Accord Edmond, supra at 48 (III) (purpose inquiry is to be conducted at programmatic level, and is not for probing minds of individual officers acting at scene))
[v] Id. at 3 (citing LaFontaine v. State, 269 Ga. 251 (497 SE2d 367) (1998))
[vi] Id. at 6 (citing Gonzalez v. State, 289 Ga. App. 549, 551 (657 SE2d 617) (2008) [*7] (supervisory officer who occasionally participated in traffic stops when traffic backed up still was acting in supervisory role); Hobbs v. State, 260 Ga. App. 115, 117 (1) (579 SE2d 50) (2003) (upholding the supervisory role of an officer who ordered the roadblock and stopped defendant at the scene))
[vii] Id. at 9-10 (internal citations omitted)