What is a Seizure under the Fourth Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure. Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution mimics this protection. We have discussed the basic tenants of what comprises a search, but what is a seizure?

The most basic definition of a seizure is when government meaningfully interferes with an individual’s possessory property rights or liberty. So in order to have a seizure of a person or property, there must be a meaningful interference with a person’s property or with their liberty.

What constitutes a “meaningful” interference is a fact based question. Each case which challenges the interference with property rights will have to look at cases with similar fact patterns and determine whether the court would find that interference meaningful.

For example, an additional barrel of chemicals loaded onto your truck is not a meaningful interference with your property rights. However, a stop of your vehicle without any reasonable suspicion or probable cause of wrongdoing is a meaningful interference. Any restraint on a person’s liberty by a person of authority is a seizure, and sometimes that’s lawful, and sometimes its not.

Just being a seizure isn’t enough to be objectionable in court. The protection extends only to unreasonable seizures. So the question really is: what makes a seizure unreasonable? There is a three part test the United States Supreme Court developed to evaluate reasonableness.

  1. The gravity of the public interest which will be served by the seizure
  2. The degree to which the seizure advances public interest
  3. How greatly the seizure interferes with personal liberties

Again, this is a fact based test. Each case is going to be looked at individually, although both Pennsylvania and the Supreme Court have stated that in order to pass the test, the seizure must begin with a minimum of reasonable suspicion. That is, the officers must have a reasonable suspicion that illegal activity is taking place. This suspicion must be particularized such that it can be spoken by an officer and must be individualized such that the officer can point to one or maybe two people or objects that are suspicious.

This is a general idea of the law defining your right against unreasonable seizure. Talk to your attorney today about the evidence against you, and whether it may have been a product of an unreasonable search or seizure.  Even if you have challenged the evidence at trial for being unreasonably seized, there still may be an opportunity to appeal and get the evidence removed in a new trial.

You deserve every opportunity for a great defense.

Your Rights at a DUI Stop: Sobriety Checkpoints and DUI Roadblocks

Sobriety checkpoints and DUI roadblocks are increasingly used to enforce DUI laws. The courts have found that if the police follow specific guidelines, a systematic checkpoint is constitutional. The police must follow certain roadblock guidelines and respect your individual rights.

If the guidelines set out by the courts are not followed, then the DUI arrest may be invalid. You should discuss with your attorney the process that you underwent regarding the arrest: from the initial stop, up until the arrest and Miranda Warnings.

What guidelines are there?

The United States Supreme Court case Michigan v. Sitz established many of the guidelines that police officers must follow in a roadblock or DUI checkpoint. Pennsylvania has established a number of other cases which largely follow these guidelines.

  • The police may not choose vehicles at random: The officers conducting the checkpoint musty have a pre-established neutral mathematical formula for which cars to stop. For example, officers may determine ahead of time that they will stop only every third car. This prevents potential discrimination by stopping individuals based on appearance.
  • Checkpoints must be established to ensure safety of police and the drivers: The roadblock must be highly visible to ensure time for stopping or slowing down to a safe speed. The roadblock must also be done in a way that minimizes the amount of time each driver is at a checkpoint.
  • You may turn around prior to the checkpoint: So long as you do not break any traffic laws or regulations, you have the right to turn around and take a different prior to being stopped at the checkpoint. That is, if you can turn off one block ahead of the actual checkpoint, you may do so to avoid the sobriety check.
  • The stop may not last long enough to constitute an unreasonable seizure of the person without reasonable suspicion: when a driver is stopped, the initial interaction with police may last only long enough to ask a few questions and determine reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion may include slurred speech, an odor of alcohol, glassy or bloodshot eyes. If the officer cannot cite reasonable suspicion within that brief initial meeting, the driver should be allowed to leave.
  • Sobriety Checkpoints and DUI Roadblocks are only permitted if they are planned and a part of an on-going safe driving program and the checkpoint follows established protocol: You should discuss with your attorney whether the protocol was established and if so whether a judge or a representative from the district attorney’s office participated in it.

The Supreme Court deemed that a car stopped at a roadblock is a seizure, but, if the purpose of the roadblock is to ensure the safety of all drivers, and the interaction is brief, then the seizure is not unreasonable. Sobriety Checkpoints are not meant to identify criminal behavior and are considered a part of regulatory law, not criminal law.

What are your rights?

As an individual faced with a Sobriety Checkpoint or a DUI Roadblock, you have certain rights. Your rights fall mainly under the Fourth Amendment, the right against unreasonable search and seizure. The government may not intrude beyond the point of a reasonable seizure.

A Sobriety Checkpoint must meet five criteria:

  1. Vehicle stops must be brief and may not entail a physical search
  2. There  must be sufficient warning of the stop prior to arrival and you have the right to avoid the DUI stop if you may do so lawfully
  3. Decisions for the checkpoint, time, conduct, etc. are subject to prior administrative approval
  4. Timing and placement of the checkpoint must be based on experience as to when and where intoxicated drivers have been found previously
  5. Decisions as to which vehicle to stop must be predetermined and is not to be left to officer discretion.

Knowing these rights ahead of time can help you when faced with a Sobriety Checkpoint or DUI Roadblock. If you believe that your rights have been violated, or that you have a challenge to the roadblock, please contact our office today for a free consultation.