An Ohio man was arrested for an unusual act – warning other drivers of a DUI checkpoint. The man made a sign warning drivers that police were conducting a drunk driving checkpoint further down the road. The sign read, “Check point ahead! Turn now!” Police informed the man that he had to remove the portion advising drivers to turn around. The man refused to alter the sign and was subsequently arrested. He has been cited for obstructing official business. The man is fighting the citation, claiming the police violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
This man has warned drivers of DUI checkpoints before. Previous similar actions had led to a prior arrest on charges including obstructing official business, though the charge was later dropped. In fact, he says warning other drivers of these checkpoints is his mission, stating, “[I’ll go] anywhere I’m called, anywhere I’m needed, anywhere I see injustice happening.” During the night the checkpoint was conducted, the man claims he was standing on the sidewalk, out of the traffic. His attorney, John Gold, believes that because the man was on the sidewalk and not directly interfering with the police, the citation was wrongfully issued. Regarding the case, Gold stated, “The problem here is not the sign in general. It’s the part of the sign that instructed drivers to turn that the officers had an issue with…but I think regardless it’s protected speech under the First Amendment.”
Ohio state law requires police to give a community notice before they enact a sobriety checkpoint. The law requires police to provide notice one week before the checkpoint, and additional notice the day of. Further, police must state the exact location of the checkpoint along with the planned start and end times. In the past, many argued that such checkpoints violated a driver’s constitutional rights. However, in 1990 the United State Supreme Court ruled that police checkpoints were constitutional so as long the police followed certain guidelines. One such guideline requires that the area of the DUI checkpoint have a long-term history of DWI/DUI incidents or alcohol-related crashes. The Supreme Court’s ruling allowed police to stop any driver at a sobriety checkpoint without additional suspicion that the driver broke the law.
Despite a ruling on checkpoints from the nation’s highest court, the issue of warning drivers of these checkpoints is still unsettled. The Ohio legislature is currently considering a bill that would permit drivers to flash their lights as a warning of police activity. Such practice is hotly contested in many states. Some states have allowed these “headlight warnings” as an extension of free speech rights. Other states have enacted laws prohibiting such warnings as an obstruction of police activity.
The proposed Ohio law and the aforementioned man’s case relate to bigger legal issues about free speech and the need to protect communities from impaired drivers. Until those issues are resolved in Ohio, police may still have to deal with warnings to other drivers. In the meantime, this specific case could certainly have an impact on the pending Ohio law and potentially on how other states handle similar issues.
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