Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California Lawrence J. O'Neill, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 1:08-MJ-00006-SMS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Silverman, Circuit Judge
Argued and Submitted July 14, 2009 -- San Francisco, California
Before: Barry G. Silverman, Richard R. Clifton and Milan D. Smith, Jr., Circuit Judges.
Park rangers set up a vehicle checkpoint at the entrance to the Kings Canyon National Park to "mitigate the illegal taking of animals in the park" due to hunting, which is prohibited in the park. All vehicles were stopped for about 15 to 25 seconds, and their drivers asked about hunting. When Appellant Ricardo Fraire's vehicle was stopped at the checkpoint, a ranger noted a strong odor of alcohol on Fraire's breath. He subsequently was charged with driving under the influence and related offenses. In a motion to suppress, Fraire argued that the suspicionless stop of his vehicle was unconstitutional. We agree with the district court that it was not. We hold today that a momentary checkpoint stop of all vehicles at the entrance of a national park, aimed at preventing illegal hunting - which is minimally intrusive, justified by a legitimate concern for the preservation of park wildlife and the prevention of irreparable harm, directly related to the operation of the park, and confined to the park gate where visitors would expect to briefly stop - is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
The facts pertinent to this appeal are drawn primarily from the testimony of Park Ranger David Schifsky, who testified at an evidentiary hearing about the background and operation of the checkpoint at issue in this case.
According to Schifsky, rangers at the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park instituted a vehicle checkpoint in 2007 to "mitigate the illegal taking of animals in the park." Hunting in the park is illegal. The checkpoint was implemented near one of the multiple park entrances and stopped all vehicles entering and exiting the park at that point. Rangers posted signs prior to the checkpoint instructing drivers to prepare to stop, concluding with stop signs, a cone pattern, a ranger station, and a ranger in a reflective jacket directing traffic. All rangers participating in the checkpoint were uniformed.
After a vehicle was stopped at the checkpoint, a ranger would approach the vehicle, identify himself or herself as a park ranger, state that he or she was conducting a hunting checkpoint, and then ask the driver, "have you been hunting" or "are you hunting?" If the driver responded that he or she was not hunting, the ranger would not search the vehicle's trunk. Questioning the drivers typically lasted about 15 to 25 seconds, and drivers sometimes had to wait in line for about one minute before being questioned by a ranger.
On October 13, 2007, Fraire was stopped at the checkpoint. Ranger Ernesto Felix approached Fraire's vehicle, smelled the odor of alcohol, and observed that Fraire's eyes were "blood-shot and glassy." Felix asked Fraire if he had been hunting and Fraire stated that he had not. Felix then asked Fraire if he had been drinking and Fraire stated that he had a couple of beers about an hour or two beforehand. Felix then conducted field sobriety tests on Fraire, which identified ten signs of intoxication. Fraire consented to a search of his vehicle, whereupon Felix found several open alcohol containers in the rear passenger compartment just behind the driver's seat.
Fraire was charged by information with operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol, driving while under the influence of alcohol with a blood alcohol content in excess of .08, and possession of an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle. See 36 C.F.R. §§ 4.23(a)(1), 4.23(a)(2), 4.14(b). After conducting the evidentiary ...