Appeals court tosses DUI conviction on grounds that police checkpoint was unlawful

Armentrout v. State, A15A0093

Georgia Court of Appeals

Relying on prior decisions by the U.S. and Georgia high courts, the Georgia Court of Appeals in its May 15 decision faulted the state for failing to prove that the Johns Creek Police Department’s overall checkpoint program had a legitimate purpose. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that a roadblock must have a primary purpose, such as ensuring roadway safety, that is something other than a general interest in crime control.

In reversing a Fulton County State Court decision, the court of appeals has addressed a matter in which Fulton judges appear to have disagreed. The question of police checkpoints is one that could arise more this summer, a prime time for DUI roadblocks.

In the case decided by the Georgia Court of Appeals, Johns Creek Police Sgt. Ronnie Young in June 2011 submitted to his superior a written proposal for several traffic safety checkpoints for the upcoming Fourth of July weekend. His superior approved the proposal.  At about 6:30 p.m. on July 4, 2011, defendant Renee Armentrout stopped at a roadblock the officers set up at the intersection of Bell Road and Cauley Creek Drive. According to an order by Fulton State Court Judge Jane Morrison, Sgt.Young testified that he had initial contact with Armentrout and observed she smelled of alcohol, slurred her speech and had red, watery eyes. Armentrout also admitted to drinking “a little bit,” according to Judge Morrison’s order. After failing a breath test and performing poorly on field sobriety tests—according to officers’ testimony—Armentrout was arrested and later charged with DUI.  Represented by Atlanta lawyer William “Bubba” Head, Armentrout pursued a motion to suppress the evidence gathered as a result of the traffic stop, contending the checkpoint was unlawful.

In its 1998 decision in LaFontaine v. State, 269 Ga. 251, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a host of requirements for roadblocks. They included: a decision to implement a roadblock must be made by a supervisor rather than officers in the field; all vehicles must be stopped; the delay to motorists must be minimal; the roadblock must be well identified as a police checkpoint; and the screening officer’s training and experience must be sufficient to qualify him to make an initial determination as to which motorists should be scrutinized further.

In October 2013—two years after the Johns Creek roadblock at issue—the Georgia Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings, Brown v. State, 293 Ga. 787, and Williams v. State, 293 Ga. 883, interpreting a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision on roadblocks, City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32. The state Supreme Court said that the U.S. case meant that a checkpoint must have a purpose other than general crime control, such as keeping unlicensed or drunk drivers off the road or intercepting illegal immigrants near the border.

Judge Morrison denied Armentrout’s motion to suppress the roadblock evidence in December 2013, citing the state’s documentation of the administrative approval of the roadblock, plans for the roadblock and the report filed afterward. She also cited the testimony of officers on the scene as to their experience with roadblocks and the use of uniformed officers, marked cars, blue lights and traffic cones to mark the roadblock location.  Armentrout was convicted of DUI last year after a stipulated bench trial designed to move the case to appeal on the roadblock and another evidentiary issue. For the trial, counsel agreed that Judge Morrison should decide the case based on the evidence presented at the motion to suppress hearing. Armentrout was sentenced to 12 months, to serve four days in custody and the balance on probation, with the conditions that she complete 80 hours of community service, pay a $1,000 fine and participate in various programs.

On appeal, Armentrout argued that there were several problems with the roadblock, including that neither officer testified about the length of time each motorist was delayed. Saying the state presented no testimony about the Johns Creek Police Department’s roadblock program or policies, she argued that the state also had failed to satisfy the requirement that the roadblock was implemented pursuant to a checkpoint program that, “when viewed at the programmatic level,” has an appropriate primary purpose other than general crime control. On that latter point, she noted that Fulton State Court Judge Wesley Tailor, in a case involving the same roadblock and same officers, had determined that the state had failed to satisfy all of the law’s requirements in that it failed to provide an oral or written roadblock policy or offer testimony from another individual with more direct knowledge of such a policy.

Joined by Judges John Ellington and Christopher McFadden, Judge Stephen Dillard wrote that Judge Morrison had erred in denying Armentrout’s motion to suppress. The panel concluded the checkpoint violated the Fourth Amendment.  “Although the checkpoint implemented by Sergeant Young and the other Johns Creek police officers may have met the requirements mandated by LaFontaine, the state failed to prove that the checkpoint program had an appropriate primary purpose,” wrote Judge Dillard, who went on to quote from the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision in Williams. “The state presented evidence that this checkpoint had a lawful purpose. However, a finding that a particular checkpoint has a primary purpose other than ordinary crime control is ‘not enough to satisfy the Edmond requirement.’ Indeed, Edmond requires ‘an examination of the policy purpose of the checkpoints, viewed at the programmatic level, to ensure that an agency’s checkpoints are established primarily for a lawful and focused purpose like traffic safety rather than to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.’ And here, there was no testimony nor any written evidence admitted regarding the Johns Creek Police Department’s checkpoint policy or program as a whole.”

Marietta lawyer Ashleigh Merchant, who was brought in to work on the appeal for Armentrout, said the state “needed to come up with a primary purpose, an appropriate primary purpose.  They can’t just go out there and stop Georgia citizens just for general crime control,” she added. Prosecutors can prove they have a legitimate reason for a checkpoint by, for example, showing that a particular intersection has had a number of fatal DUI accidents.  Fulton Solicitor General Carmen Smith, whose office handled the prosecution, said her office would have no comment.  Attorney Head, who handled the case at the trial court level, said the state had indicated it would not be appealing. As for the court of appeals opinion, Head said, “It does nothing but reiterate that Brown and Williams must be complied with—and that’s fully complied with.”

As published by The Daily Report, 190 Pryor St. Atlanta, GA 30303 on 5/26/15, with edits.