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Zack Needles Aug. 14, 2013

A split state Supreme Court has ruled that sheriffs and their deputies have no authority to independently set up and conduct suspicionless DUI checkpoints.

In Commonwealth v. Marconi, the six-justice court ruled 5-1, affirming a Superior Court decision that held that while sheriffs and their deputies have common-law powers to arrest, they do not have the power to conduct “suspicionless” DUI roadblocks, which have sensitive constitutional implications.

Writing for the majority, Justice Thomas G. Saylor said sheriffs and sheriff’s deputies do not fall under the Vehicle Code’s definition of “police officers.”

“The members of this court maintain great respect and express gratitude for sheriffs and their deputies in the performance of indispensable public services within their realm,” Justice Saylor said.

“We reiterate, however, that they are not police officers — nor are they invested with general police powers beyond the authority to arrest for in-presence breaches of the peace and felonies — in the absence of express legislative designation.”

Justice Saylor was joined in the result by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justices Max Baer, Debra Todd and J. Michael Eakin.

Justice Seamus P. McCaffery filed a dissenting opinion, arguing that the power of sheriffs and their deputies to conduct DUI checkpoints flows from their “authority to stop, detain and arrest a person who violates the Vehicle Code, thereby breaching the peace, in the sheriff’s presence.”

Justice Eakin penned a concurring opinion joining the majority but noting that there is no case law or statute that prohibits sheriffs or their deputies from assisting police in running checkpoints.

In Marconi, Forest and Warren County sheriffs and deputies set up a DUI checkpoint in Forest County, and defendant John M. Marconi was stopped.

After field sobriety and chemical tests, Mr. Marconi was arrested and charged with DUI and other offenses.

Mr. Marconi challenged the sheriffs’ authority to conduct checkpoints, but the state said that power was vested in sheriffs by the Supreme Court’s 1994 decision in Commonwealth v. Leet, which held that sheriffs may arrest people for motor vehicleviolations committed in their presence.

The state also pointed to the Supreme Court’s 1999 ruling in PennDOT v. Kline, which relied on Leet to conclude that a deputy sheriff had the power to enforce the Vehicle Code at a checkpoint.

Forest County Court of Common Pleas President Judge William F. Morgan, however, ruled that there was no express statutory authority giving sheriffs and their deputies the power to conduct independent investigations such as DUI checkpoints.

The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling and the case was taken up by the Supreme Court.

On appeal, Justice Saylor said the predecessors cases established only that sheriffs and their deputies have the same power as all citizens do to arrest for breaches of peace and felonies committed in their presence.

Justice Saylor also disagreed with the state’s assertion that a sheriff’s authority to arrest someone at a sobriety checkpoint is intertwined with the power to conduct the checkpoint.

“In point of fact, if the sheriffs lacked the latter authority pertaining to the checkpoint at which appellee was stopped without particularized suspicion and tested for effects of alcohol intoxication, there could have been no valid ensuing arrest,” Justice Saylor said.

Justice McCaffery said in his dissent that while he agreed with the majority that sheriffs are not police officers, he believes that with the proper training, sheriffs should be allowed to conduct their own DUI checkpoints.

Mr. Marconi’s attorney, Gregory A. Henry of Bradford, Pa., said he and his client were “very pleased” with the ruling.

Mr. Henry did note, however, that the Legislature could render this opinion essentially meaningless if it were to decide to change the statute to give sheriffs the authority to run their own checkpoints.

A spokesperson for the state office of attorney general could not be reached.

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