Local police departments across Pennsylvania are being advised to temporarily stop conducting sobriety checkpoints with officers from other departments in light of a recent state Supreme Court ruling overturning a woman’s drunken-driving conviction in Allegheny County.
In the meantime, elected officials in municipalities where police officers are involved in a regional DUI task force are being told to see whether those officers are authorized to participate in checkpoint operations in other jurisdictions.
The Supreme Court ruled May 31 that municipalities must enact ordinances under the state’s Intergovernmental Cooperation Act to allow officers to participate in arrests outside their municipalities except in cases of emergency.
“This isn’t the first time a legal challenge has come up, and law enforcement will make adjustments for this as well as they work to protect lives and save futures from something as preventable as DUI,” said Cathy Tress of the Pennsylvania DUI Association.
For decades, police departments have made agreements with each other through the state’s Municipal Police Jurisdiction Act to staff DUI task forces and sobriety checkpoints instead of having those agreements approved by elected municipal officials, according to attorney Michael Steven Sherman. The court ruled that was improper.
PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said there are 51 task forces across Pennsylvania and noted, “We are not aware of any municipalities who have passed ordinances (providing authorization) for these agreements.”
The issue came to light as Sherman represented Molly Hlubin of Buffalo, N.Y., in an appeal of a drunken-driving conviction stemming from a 2013 arrest at a Robinson checkpoint. Hlubin’s blood-alcohol content measured about 0.15%, nearly twice the legal limit, according to court documents.
At the checkpoint, Hlubin, now 30, was initially questioned by then-Moon police Sgt. Douglas Ogden before being referred to a Robinson officer for further sobriety testing.
At the time, Ogden, now a captain in the Moon police department, served as coordinator of the West Hills DUI Task Force, which conducted the checkpoint along Robinson’s Steubenville Pike. The task force includes 15 member municipalities and conducts five to 11 checkpoints a year, according to court paperwork.
The court found that elected officials in the member municipalities never authorized their officers’ participation in the task force.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling, Ogden, who no longer coordinates the West Hills task force, still believes checkpoints can play an important role in reducing drunken driving and improving public safety.
“We may have arrested only four people at a checkpoint, but there were 800 drivers stopped who will remember and be thankful they weren’t impaired,” Ogden said as an example.
“Our job is to save lives,” he said.
The West Hills task force has arrested 700 people over 15 years. It’s unknown how many of those arrests that subsequently resulted in convictions will now be challenged in court, and whether convictions from arrests made by other DUI task forces in the region are at risk of being overturned.
Sherman said other would-be clients have reached out to him, but he declined to say how many.
The court decision has prompted a review of DUI task forces beyond West Hills.
The Laurel Highlands DUI Task Force, which has conducted multiple checkpoints each month since 2015, is on temporary hold following the court decision, said Latrobe police Officer Robert Derk, who serves as coordinator of the group.
“It’s the same as every department in the state. Each municipality where the checkpoints are held now has to pass an ordinance that their police department can work with the respective DUI task force,” Derk said, adding the decision does not mean departments will not continue to aggressively go after drunken and drugged drivers in their municipalities.
The North Hills Council on Governments and its solicitor met Friday with members of the North Hills DUI Task Force about what would be required to write and enact an intergovernmental agreement there, officials said. Further details weren’t available Tuesday.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. is aware of the Supreme Court ruling, according to spokesman Mike Manko.
“We are currently reviewing it to determine which municipal departments need to address this issue, and we are also reviewing cases that we have in the system to determine if they are impacted by this decision,” he said.
Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck and Armstrong County District Attorney Katie Chapman were not available for comment.
The ruling doesn’t eliminate sobriety checkpoints.
The Pennsylvania DUI Association said in correspondence to local police departments that they should, until further notice, focus enforcement efforts on roving patrols in which officers pull over cars driven by suspected drunken or drugged drivers in the municipalities where they work.
The departments also were urged to continue conducting checkpoints as long as they used their own officers. The association said departments also could reach out to Pennsylvania State Police in their respective counties to see if they could offer troopers to supplement checkpoint operations when necessary.
Sherman said the intention of the appeal wasn’t to eliminate checkpoints. But he said the Supreme Court’s ruling makes it clear that they should be done “within the boundaries of the law.”
“That’s a win for citizens,” Sherman said.