NJ Drunk Driving Update: DWI Checkpoint, Sobriety Roadblock Alerts on Twitter, Facebook Raise Some Ire

As a practicing New Jersey drunk driving defense attorney and former municipal prosecutor, I understand the importance of individual rights and how those rights and personal freedoms are protected by the Constitution of the United States. I also know that technology continues to push the envelope of what is considered acceptable regarding free speech and free expression.

Living in such an technologically advanced, diverse and informed society, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to read of the concerns voiced by many individuals regarding the varied uses for which social media are being employed. At this point, we would have to say that this is a complex subject that likely will take years to be fully resolved.

What is clear is that there are many people, law makers and politicians included, who are concerned about how some individuals are using their smartphones and social media sites to communicate instantly the existence of drunken driving roadblocks and sobriety checkpoints, as well as speed traps and other aspects of law enforcement activities. It’s no surprise that these channels of communication are highly successful at keeping people up-to-date on all issues, not just DWI enforcement zones; just take a look at the massive changes that have taken place in Middle East, which surely have been facilitated by social media.

According to a recent editorial, there may be a group of people who would like to imprison those who use Facebook and Twitter to publish warnings as to the whereabouts of drunk driving roadblocks. Is this a legitimate concern? Perhaps. However, law enforcement agencies are already required by law to publish the locations of these DWI and sobriety checkpoints in advance. It would be hard to say that a Twitter or Facebook user was revealing secret or sensitive police information.

Based on an author’s comments, a recent warning was posted on a Facebook page telling New Jersey drivers that westbound Route 46 had an drunk driving checkpoint in operation and that other motorists should avoid that stretch of road and take Interstate 80 instead. The author of the editorial then asks, “Why can’t we prosecute these people for those ‘warnings’?”

The argument here is that drunken driving checkpoints are designed to make New Jersey roads safer and to protect innocent lives, as well as those of drivers who choose to operate a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol or other substances. The author goes on to say that people who post the times and locations of DWI/sobriety checkpoints may be guilty of obstruction of justice.

To be fair, it’s hard to say what the root intention is of these people who post such warnings. For instance, the comment was made that a Passaic County councilperson who attended the same event as the woman who posted the Route 46 warning thanked the poster for the information. According to the article, that Passaic county official took Route 80 home, avoiding the checkpoint altogether.

Intent is important. While we can’t know the actual reason for this particular posting, it’s always possible that it was meant to help people avoid a potentially time-consuming stop at the sobriety checkpoint, and in doing so save her friends and colleagues some time in getting home to their families. Taking the more sinister point of view, it could have been a warning to possibly inebriated individuals to avoid a costly DWI summons.

As we said, only time will tell whether this kind of communication via social media turns out to be illegal in the future. For now, it may be safe to say — distasteful as this may sound to some — that this kind of communication still comes under the heading of free speech.

Why can’t we jail people who post Facebook warnings about DWI roadblocks?, CliffviewPilot.com, August 22, 2011