What Are Your Rights At a Motorcycle Roadblock? Know Them Or Lose Them
You’re riding through Georgia, and that in itself might be a questionable decision (but we’ll leave that subject for another time), and you find yourself stopped at a roadblock or a motorcycle “checkpoint.” What do you do now? What are your rights? Bolting is not an option, so here’s some advice on where you stand and what you can do within your rights.
Roadblocks are always established in spots that make avoiding them next to impossible, and they’re placed in locations to offer ample parking for interrogating bikers and issuing tickets. The purpose of these roadblocks? They’re usually legalized excuses to stop and scrutinize motorcyclists and motorists for “sobriety checks,” license and registration checks, determining insurance coverage and a host of other annoying and often expensive little examinations.
The courts sometimes disallow roadblocks for certain purposes like identify drug users or couriers and so-called “profile stops,” but enforcement teams beat that stipulation by claiming the stops are for other purposes entirely. You’ll get no help from the courts for the most part as they have, as a rule, gone out of their way to give police agencies wide latitude in what they can do when they have you in their clutches and under their control.
That doesn’t mean you’re without rights if you are stopped, and you should know what they are if it ever happens to you and your fellow riders.
Number one, and this one is critical and without exception, the police do not have the authority to search you or your vehicle without probable cause that you have or are in the process of committing a crime. They may, and likely will, ask your permission to conduct a search, but it doesn’t mean they have ironclad legal grounds to force that search. Rule number one in this situation is to never permit a voluntary search of your person or your vehicle. You don’t have to be rude, but you don’t have to cave in under pressure either. The police are sure to hit you with the “if you don’t have anything to hide, why object to a search?” question, and it’s not an illegitimate request, but it should be ignored or answered by invoking your right to privacy. If the police really want to search you or your bike, they’re going to do it anyway, but you should make sure they do it without your consent for legal reasons.
If the police insist on searching your vehicle, you need to force them to establish exactly what “illegal” item they’re after what reason they have to think you have it on your bike. Witout a plausible answer to this line of questions, they lack even basic legal grounds to go through your pockets or your bike. Courts seem willing to allow somewhere around 20 minutes of this kind of banter and inquiry, so when the clock starts running out, ask them in no uncertain terms, “Am I free to go now?”
The basic “sobriety roadblock” leaves you in a dangerous position, and even the authorities admit that this type of roadblock nets precious few drunk drivers. That isn’t the point, the flashlight in the face and the intimidation factor is what the authorities are looking to create with this kind of stop. The officer wants you nervous and willing to forego your rights, so keep that in mind as you deal with this intrusion.
What do you have to do during this kind of stop?
You must show your standard documentation like a driver’s license and proof of insurance, so make sure to store them in your wallet so you aren’t required to open your luggage to produce them. You aren’t required to answer questions about where you’re going or whether or not you’ve had a couple of drinks recently, so don’t answer them.
If you’re called on to pass a “field sobriety test,” there’s only one legal reason. The police need probable cause to arrest you for drunk driving. As for this one, you’re hosed as the penalties for refusing a chemical or skills sobriety test are nearly as severe as actually being convicted of a DWI.
What can you do? You can, as you show your documentation, say “Officer, think roadblocks are unconstitutional and I don’t care to discuss anything else.” If the officer keeps pushing, you can immediately ask if you’re free to leave. Make sure to remain polite if this doesn’t work. You may think that answering what seems like a simple question is harmless, but the line of questioning could easily lead to your giving potentially incriminating answers to what seem like routine questions, so consider what you say very, very carefully.
The New York State Police recently implemented a law enforcement checkpoint act targeting motorcyclists, and it’s pretty clear this kind of “checkpoint” is both discriminatory and inappropriate. You have the AMA on your side on this one.
The state of Georgia actually got a $70,000 grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to create this kind of checkpoint, and that is purely amazing. Early this year, the AMA sent the second of two letters to Georgia authorities asking that the grant not be used until the legality of such grants and checkpoints is explored. In the meantime, the AMA is telling motorcyclists traveling through the state of Georgia that I-95 is a no-fly zone.
On March 3, 2011, Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner introduced H.R. 904, a bill which would prohibit the Secretary of Transportation from providing grants or any funds to states or local governments to be used for any program to create motorcycle only checkpoints.
Our take? Operating your motorcycle safely and legally is the responsibility of individual riders and you don’t need additional or discriminatory practices to help you do that. If you break the law, that’s another matter, but being stopped without cause is both annoying and very likely, unconstitutional, so keep your wits about you and protect your rights.
One way to do that is to make sure you’re riding well within the bounds of the law, which includes having the proper documentation and proof of insurance, so make sure you comply and avoid any unnecessary legal headaches.