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PA Ruling Puts Some DUI Checkpoints in Doubt

Ruling: Sheriffs not authorized to conduct DUI checkpoints

When approaching a DUI checkpoint, your first thought might be about the traffic delays and long lines, but it’s probably not, “Who’s running this thing anyway?” A new Pennsylvania Supreme Court case suggests this is a critical question. In the recently decided Commonwealth v. Marconi, the Supreme Court ruled that Forest and Warren County sheriffs and deputies did not have the authority to conduct a suspicionless DUI checkpoint.

The Court further held that under the Vehicle Code, sheriffs and sheriff’s deputies are not “police officers.” While sheriffs and deputies do have other powers, such as participating in police-led checkpoints and arresting individuals for breaches of the peace and felonies committed in their presence–they need express legislative authority to be able to do more, such as actually initiate the checkpoint themselves. This distinction is somewhat difficult to pinpoint, but in other words, a sheriff could legally arrest someone at a suspicionless checkpoint–but they couldn’t initiate the checkpoint in the first place.

The Vehicle Code defines “police officer” as a natural person authorized by law to make arrests for violations of law. ( Given this broad language, it is easy to see why sheriffs and deputies would seem to fall under this definition. However, Justice Thomas G. Saylor, writing for the majority, agreed with the Forest County Court of Common Pleas President Judge William F. Morgan, who stated that this statute must be strictly construed in order to prevent constitutional violations of individuals’ right to avoid unreasonable search and seizures. Taken to its logical extreme, a broad interpretation of this definition would mean all citizens could be considered police officers, which would clearly seem to be an unreasonable result.

Dissenting, Justice Seamus P. McCaffery argued that the violation of the Vehicle Code–operating a vehicle while intoxicated–should qualify as a breach of peace in the sheriff’s presence. If a sheriff could detain a person who was violating the Vehicle Code, the ability to conduct a DUI checkpoint to apprehend such individuals should follow.

The state in this case relied primarily on two cases: Commonwealth v. Leet and PennDOT v. Kline. While in Leet, the Court upheld sheriffs’ power to arrest people for motor vehicle violations committed in their presence, Kline went so far as to hold that a deputy sheriff could enforce the Vehicle Code at a checkpoint. The Court, however, cited additional, more recent cases, which limited sheriffs’ authority to engage in activities such as independent investigations under the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act and the Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act. It distinguished Leet and Kline, holding that there is a need to delineate sheriffs’ arrest powers in the absence of the Legislature’s specific authorization.

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