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Sheriff ’s office to obey court’s roadblock ruling

Letcher County Sheriff Danny Webb says his office will follow the Kentucky Supreme Court’s ruling that adequate notice of roadblocks must be given to motorists.

Webb said the sheriff ’s department in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies will conduct safety checkpoints this holiday season in Letcher County.

In a divided decision, the state court ruled that a conviction for drunken driving stemming from a state police roadblock in Marion County was improper because motorists weren’t notified properly.

The ruling continued the court’s effort to balance highway safety and constitutional protections against unreasonable seizures. The high court upheld a state Court of Appeals ruling that found the roadblock unconstitutional and reversed the drunken-driving conviction.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. said the Kentucky State Police roadblock failed to pass muster because it was not readily apparent to approaching motorists. The troopers did not put up warning signs to inform motorists of the impending stop, he said. Nor did police post any media announcement that the traffic checkpoint was planned, Minton said.

“The KSP did turn on their emergency lights at the roadblock and officers were in uniform, but this is not enough to provide adequate notice to approaching motorists,” Minton wrote. “The roadblock began almost instantaneously without any apparent concern for affording motorists prior notice.”

That’s among four general guidelines laid out by the state Supreme Court in a prior ruling years ago to ensure that police roadblocks in Kentucky don’t infringe on constitutional rights against unreasonable seizures.

Minton said that violation of one guideline alone doesn’t necessarily result in a constitutional violation. He noted the “grave danger” posed by drunken drivers and the presumption that law enforcement “generally acts honorably” in its efforts to protect motorists. Although the court does not require “rigid compliance” with the guidelines, Minton said, the court “cannot continue to soften the edges of what is constitutionally reasonable.”

Minton also said “we strongly disfavor hastily arranged highway checkpoints. It is implicit in our analysis that without proper planning and notice, roadblocks are susceptible to the type of discretion and intrusion the Fourth Amendment exists to forbid.”

In the Marion County case, however, approval for the roadblock was sought from a state police supervisor, Minton noted.

Minton was joined by justices Lisabeth Hughes Abramson, Michelle Keller and Daniel Venters. Justice Mary Noble concurred in a separate opinion.

The ruling drew a dissent from Justice Bill Cunningham. He was joined by Justice Samuel T. Wright III.

In his dissent, Cunningham said the roadblock was in “substantial compliance” with the guidelines and other rulings on the issue.

“In light of the fact that there were parked police cruisers with lights flashing, I do not believe that the lack of warning signs or announcements was in and of itself fatal to the stop,” he wrote.

The Marion County case stemmed from the arrest of Billy Cox at the roadblock at a highway intersection. As Cox approached, a trooper noticed he wasn’t wearing his seat belt, according to the court. When questioned, Cox admitted to drinking two beers during dinner at a restaurant, it said.

Cox was convicted of second-offense driving under the influence, failure to wear a seat belt and possession of an open alcohol container in a vehicle. He was sentenced to 14 days in jail, a $350 fine and 30 days of community service.

His conviction was upheld in circuit court but reversed by the state Court of Appeals.

KSP Post 13 Public Affairs Officer Jody Sims said no change has been made to the policy and procedure concerning roadblocks at this time.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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