LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas State Police violated a man’s constitutional rights when they stopped him at a sobriety checkpoint on Interstate 540 in Fort Smith in September 2012, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The state’s top court overturned James Edward Whalen’s July 2014 conviction of driving while intoxicated, first offense, finding that his arrest and conviction were the result of an unconstitutional sobriety checkpoint.
In an opinion by Justice Karen Baker, the court said the U.S. Supreme Court has said the Fourth Amendment requires that a seizure be carried out pursuant to a plan embodying explicit, neutral limitations on the conduct of individual officers and that the seizure not be carried out by officers in the field with unfettered discretion.
The sobriety checkpoint in Whalen’s case did not meet that test, the court said, noting that Arkansas State Police Cpl. Dwight Lee testified that he set up and operated the checkpoint on his own initiative, did not inform supervisors of the checkpoint until after he had operated it, and had discretion to decide which vehicles to stop.
The court said it was adopting the reasoning of the Tennessee Supreme Court in the case Tennessee v. Hicks. The Tennessee court said in that case that the decision to set up a roadblock cannot be made by the officer or officers who set it up and that the officers on the scene cannot decide for themselves the procedures to be used in operating the roadblock.
“There was, in effect, unfettered discretion given to the field officers. Thus, the checkpoint was unconstitutional,” the court said in the opinion.
Justice Rhonda Wood wrote in a separate opinion that she concurred in the decision to overturn Whalen’s conviction but said she would have done so because the state did not present evidence of a plan for the sobriety checkpoint.
Wood said she did not believe the court should have adopted the reasoning of the Tennessee Supreme Court — a reasoning she said was based on the Tennessee Constitution and “will inevitably result in micromanaging law enforcement” in Arkansas.
Chief Justice Howard Brill joined in Wood’s concurring opinion.