TUPELO • Offering further comment on a case involving city attorney Ben Logan, Justice Court Judge Chuck Hopkins said he deemed a Mississippi Highway Patrol checkpoint unconstitutional because no evidence indicated that troopers had permission from their supervisor to conduct the checkpoint.
On July 11, Hopkins dismissed a drunken driving charge against Logan, who provides legal counsel for Mayor Jason Shelton’s administration.
That dismissal came after Logan’s legal team motioned for all evidence in the case to be suppressed. This motion was based on the claim that Logan’s Dec. 7 arrest came after state troopers stopped Logan at a checkpoint that violated the U.S. Constitution’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
Now, speaking publicly about his ruling in the case, Hopkins said the December checkpoint’s fatal defect was that no authorization by a law enforcement supervisor is documented in the court record.
“There has to be something from higher above saying it’s OK,” Hopkins said, explaining his understanding of constitutional provisions and case law on the subject.
Attorneys representing Logan had argued that the approval of a supervisor was necessary to comply with constitutional standards.
Hopkins said he’d asked the prosecutor in the case for an affidavit attesting that proper authorization had been given for the Dec. 7 checkpoint. No such affidavit was filed with the court.
Justice court judges don’t provide written opinions with their rulings. At the time of his July 11 decision, Hopkins read only a brief statement stating his view “that the roadblock where Mr. Logan was stopped on the night in question was in fact unconstitutional.”
That sparseness of his comment at the time fueled uncertainty over the basis of his finding.
Indeed, a state trooper involved in the original stop approached Hopkins about his ruling, according to the judge, and wanted to know more about the reasons for it.
“I told him, the only mistake that was made was he didn’t have the permission of a supervisor,” Hopkins said.
Other law enforcement officials in the area were also casting a close eye toward the ruling by Hopkins and hoping for more clarity.
“I want to make sure, based on this ruling, that I fully understand what constitutional statute was violated to have this case dismissed because I want to make sure that the Lee County Sheriff’s Department does not do the same thing,” Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson told the Daily Journal.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that sobriety checkpoints and safety checkpoints to verify driver’s license and registration validity are acceptable, but if only certain safeguards are in place.
According to a 1979 ruling, the court “has insisted that the discretion of the official in the field be circumscribed, at least to some extent.”
The court went on to suggest that stopping and questioning all drivers at a checkpoint would be one possible way to limit impermissible discretion by field officers.
As he left court after the dismissal of his case, Logan would not answer questions about whether he thought the Tupelo Police Department conducted its safety checkpoints in a manner that satisfies constitutional standards.
Speaking last week, TPD Chief Bart Aguirre said he thinks the department has met its legal obligations.
“I sure hope we have,” Aguirre said. “We have discussed that with all our command staff. We think that we are in compliance.”
Aguirre also said he has consulted with municipal court prosecutor Richard Babb on the issue.
“We want to make sure we’re doing everything the right way, and if there’s changes to be made we’ll change them and get into compliance,” Aguirre said. “We looked at it when this ruling came down.”
According to Aguirre, shift supervisors approve all routine checkpoints conducted by Tupelo police.
“The shift lieutenant will say that’s an area we deem a high crime area or we have some problems so we can justify putting up a safety checkpoint,” Aguirre said.
Lee County’s sheriff also said he enforces the same rule.
“The sheriff’s department has a policy in place and requires a supervisor to sign off on it, assign the location, assign the officers, assign the time,” Johnson said.