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Minor deviation from departmental policy on checkpoints was reasonable

Facts

In 2006, Newton County Sheriff’s Deputy Toby Pinson and his brother, Jeremy Pinson, a police officer from Hickory, Mississippi, established a license and safety checkpoint at about 3:00 p.m. According to Deputy Pinson, the checkpoint was authorized by Chief Deputy Sheriff Billy Pat Walker of the Newton County Sheriff’s Department.

At about 3:20 p.m., a truck driven by Debra Field arrived at the checkpoint and was stopped. Deputy Pinson asked Field for her driver’s license whereupon she informed the deputy that her license was suspended. Deputy Pinson detected the smell of alcohol and instructed Field to pull over to the side of the road. After Field complied, Deputy Pinson instructed her to step out of the truck and asked Field whether she had been drinking.

Field informed Deputy Pinson that she had been “at the river” where she had a couple of drinks, prompting Deputy Pinson to ask if he could search her truck for alcohol. Field consented, telling Deputy Pinson that she did not care if he searched the truck because it did not belong to her. As Deputy Pinson searched the truck, Officer Pinson watched over Field.

During his search, Deputy Pinson noticed a purse and, inside the purse, a cigarette case. Deputy Pinson testified that within the cigarette case, and in his plain view, was a rolled-up marijuana joint. At this point, Deputy Pinson read Field her Miranda rights. After Field nodded that she understood her rights, Deputy Pinson asked whether the cigarette case belonged to her, wherein Field told the deputy that she forgot the joint was in the case.

Beyond the marijuana joint, the cigarette case held a plastic bag with a white rock substance, which was later proved to contain cocaine. Asked whether the white substance belonged to her, Field told Deputy Pinson that it did not. The officers then terminated the checkpoint as Field was taken into custody and transported to the Newton County Sheriff’s Department. (Marijuana case was handled separately. This appeal concerns cocaine).

Field testified that she and a group of friends had been camping along the Pearl River near Carthage, Mississippi when her van broke down. In an effort to arrange a tow, Field borrowed a truck from a friend and had started for Newton, Mississippi when she encountered the police checkpoint. While Field admitted that she consented to the search of the truck and that the cigarette case belonged to her, she continued to deny that the cocaine found in the cigarette case was hers, insisting that while camping other people had access to her purse.

Field was convicted of possession of cocaine and sentenced to eight years. On appeal, she argued the checkpoint did not comport with the written policy directives of the Newton County Sheriff’s Office. MCOA affirmed.

Analysis

Field contends that because the police checkpoint did not comport with the written policy directives of the Newton County Sheriff’s Department, any search emanating from the checkpoint was invalid. Specifically, Field asserts that policy requires the presence of a supervisor to oversee the checkpoint and that three sheriff’s department officers participate. Because neither Deputy Pinson nor Officer Pinson held the necessary authority to oversee the checkpoint, and because they were the only two officers present, Field argues that both the checkpoint and subsequent search of the truck were invalid.

A seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment occurs when a vehicle is stopped at a police checkpoint. The fundamental question then becomes whether such seizures are reasonable. The reasonableness of a given police checkpoint is measured by balancing its intrusion on an individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the checkpoint’s promotion of a legitimate governmental interest.

Field alleges that the checkpoint was invalid solely because the officers involved failed to adhere to departmental policy. To this point, she relies on a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit which concluded that, where policy directives for checkpoints exist, they should be followed. United States v. Huguenin, 154 F.3d 547 (6th Cir. 1998).

We find that the application of this rule to the present facts is misplaced. In Huguenin, the appellate court held that a checkpoint set up under the pretext of ensuring traffic safety, but actually designed to intercept narcotics, was unreasonable and ultimately unconstitutional. With respect to procedural guidance, the court found the checkpoint was administered not under departmental policy, but rather by the individual officers in the field who were free to decide which motorists to stop and where and when the checkpoint would be set up.

Here, Deputy Pinson testified that the legitimate purpose of the checkpoint was to check for valid driver’s licenses. The checkpoint was set up during daylight hours in a straightaway, and Deputy Pinson testified that the plan was to stop every vehicle, without exception, that they encountered at the checkpoint.

Additionally, the checkpoint was authorized by Newton County Chief Deputy Sheriff Walker, a department supervisor. This court has consistently held that the State does arguably have an interest in ensuring that drivers are properly licensed. See Johnston and Briggs.

A checkpoint set up for the specific purpose of checking driver’s licenses, valid tags, and insurance serves a legitimate public safety purpose; therefore, it does not violate a defendant’s right of protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. See Hampton.

Further, the departmental policies were established to ensure safety in conducting a legitimate checkpoint. As already noted, the checkpoint was set up in daylight, on a straight thoroughfare, and there was a definitive plan established by the officers for checking vehicles. Field’s stop was conducted in a safe and reasonable manner.

Thus, we find that any minor deviation from the departmental policy, in this instance, was reasonable under the circumstances and did not violate Field’s constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment. Accordingly, we find that this assignment of error is without merit.

 

https://courts.ms.gov/Images/Opinions/CO61556.pdf