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Pennsylvania Court Upholds Seatbelt Roadblocks
Appellate panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court endorses the use of seatbelt roadblocks.

Judge Paula Francisco Ott
Motorists traveling along a highway in Pennsylvania can be stopped at roadblocks specifically set up just to issue seatbelt citations. A three-judge panel of the superior court on Friday endorsed the practice of using federal grants to set up seatbelt checkpoints statewide on high-volume roadways.

On November 19, 2009 at 9pm, Cipriano Garibay was driving his white Dodge Caravan through Pittsburgh on Banksville Road when he was stopped at a "Click it or ticket" roadblock which uses federal gas tax dollars to pay overtime for participating police officers. Everyone stopped was handed a "Click it or ticket" pamphlet, but Garibay was directed to a special screening lane as officers hoped to issue him a ticket for having a noisy exhaust. The officers found much more once Garibay rolled down the window. Officers were overwhelmed by the smell of marijuana which led to a blood test that showed he was driving under the influence. When challenged, Pittsburgh officers insisted the roadblock was set up by the book.

"A seatbelt safety checkpoint is different as where with all the signage that is up, the vehicles come through the checkpoint, it is an approximate five second interaction," Sergeant Richard Howe testified. "If we do not observe any violation of the vehicle code... they are handed a flyer that we were given from the state, basically public awareness things for seatbelts, and then they are sent on their way."

Even though failure to wear a seatbelt cannot justify a traffic stop under Pennsylvania law, the court asserted that the seatbelt roadblock was lawful because it met the state supreme court criteria for holding a drunk-driving checkpoint.

"The evidence demonstrates that the checkpoint was set up to produce only a momentary stop," Judge Paula Francisco Ott wrote for the panel. "Rather than observing the driver for indications of intoxication, this stop allowed officers to distribute literature on seatbelt use and allowed a general overview of the vehicle for any obvious equipment violations. There is no testimony that officers required drivers to activate windshield wipers or to take any actions at all to demonstrate the functionality of the vehicle. Therefore, the checkpoint represented a minimally invasive disruption to the motorists."

Despite the majority's reasoning, roadblocks are highly controversial. The US Supreme Court approved their use in the 1990 case Michigan v. Sitz which found the "public safety" purpose of stopping drunk driving rendered an otherwise unreasonable, warrantless search reasonable. Ten states (Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) rejected the high court's reasoning and have outlawed roadblocks under their state constitutions.

Judge Jacqueline O. Shogan dissented from the majority, arguing the police did not provide sufficient evidence that the roadblock followed sobriety checkpoint guidelines.

A copy of the decision is available in a 120k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Pennsylvania v. Garibay (Pennsylvania Superior Court, 7/12/2013)

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