Written by attorney James Cannon Huber

DUI Checkpoint Rights

Sobriety Checkpoint Rights

What are Sobriety Checkpoints?

A sobriety checkpoint is a public place at which law enforcement officers maintain a roadblock to detain motorists in order to determine whether the drivers are intoxicated. At a sobriety checkpoint, officers either stop every vehicle or use a specific pattern (i.e. every fourth vehicle) to stop certain cars on a public road to investigate if drivers are impaired. These checkpoints are typically set up late at night or early in the morning, when drunk driving is known to happen.

Are Sobriety Checkpoints Legal?

In 1990, the United States Supreme Court, in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz ( 496 U.S. 444), declared that properly conducted sobriety checkpoints are consistent with the 4th Amendment. In other words, sobriety checkpoints do not violate citizens’ 4th Amendment right against searches and seizures. The court held that the intrusion on individual liberty imposed by the sobriety checkpoint was outweighed by the State’s interest in preventing accidents caused by drunk drivers.

The Supreme Court of California rendered a decision on the landmark California sobriety checkpoint case, Ingersoll v. Palmer(43 Cal.3d 1321), in 1987. This decision set the standard for how law enforcement agencies must conduct roadside sobriety checkpoints. The Supreme Court identified 8 factors for minimizing the intrusiveness on the individual while balancing the needs of society in keeping drunk drivers off the road:

  1. Decision Making at the Supervisory Level: Only supervisory law enforcement personnel, not an officer in the field, may make the decision to establish a sobriety checkpoint and select the site. This requirement is important to reduce the potential for arbitrary and capricious enforcement.

  2. Limits on the Discretion of Field Officers: A neutral formula such as every driver or every third, fifth, or tenth driver should be employed to determine who is to be stopped. This requirement takes away the discretion of the field officer to stop any particular driver or car when there is no legitimate basis for the determination.

  3. Maintenance of Safety Conditions: Primary consideration must be given to maintaining safety for motorists and officers. In order to minimize the risk of danger to motorists and police, proper lighting, warning signs and signals and clearly identifiable official vehicles and personnel are necessary. The checkpoint should only be operated when the traffic volume allows the operation to be conducted safely.

  4. Reasonable Location: The location of roadblocks should be determined by policymaking officials rather than by officers in the field. The sites chosen should be those which will be most effective in actually stopping drunk drivers, such as roads which have a high incidence of alcohol-related accidents and arrests.

  5. Time and Duration: There are no hard and fast rules as to timing or duration of the sobriety checkpoint, but law enforcement officials should exercise good judgment in setting times and durations, with an eye to effectiveness of the operation, and with safety of motorists in mind.

  6. Indicia of Official Nature of Roadblock: The roadblock should be established with high visibility, including warning signs, flashing lights, adequate lighting, police vehicles and the presence of uniformed officers. Not only are such factors important for safety reasons, advance warning will reassure motorists that the stop is duly authorized.

  7. Length and Nature of Detention: Each motorist stopped should be detained only long enough for the officer to question the driver briefly and to look for signs of intoxication, such as alcohol on the breath, slurred speech, and glassy or bloodshot eyes. If the driver does not display signs of impairment, he or she should be permitted to drive on without further delay. If the officer does observe symptoms of impairment, the driver may be directed to a separate area for a roadside sobriety test. At that point, further investigation would of course be based on probable cause, and general principles of detention and arrest would apply.

  8. Advance Publicity: Advance publicity is important to the maintenance of a constitutionally permissible sobriety checkpoint. Publicity both reduces the intrusiveness of the stop and increases the deterrent effect of the roadblock. Publicity also serves to establish the legitimacy of sobriety checkpoints in the minds of motorists.

If law enforcement does not follow a majority of the factors set forth by the Supreme Court, the evidence obtained as a result of the checkpoint may be suppressed as an intrusion on the motorist’s 4th Amendment rights.

What are My Rights at Sobriety Checkpoints?

As with any routine stop, you are required to provide identifying information such as your name, address, driver’s license, and registration. However, under the law, you do not have to answer any questions about where you have been or where you are going, whether you have been drinking or what items are contained in your car.

Though law enforcement officers are permitted to stop you briefly, they may not search you or your car unless they have probable cause or you consent to the search.

Law enforcement cannot force you to take field sobriety tests. Field sobriety tests are designed for failure. They are conducted for one reason only – to develop probable cause to arrest you for drunk driving. Again, you are not required by law to perform these tests.

If law enforcement believes they have probable cause to charge you with drunk driving, they may require you to submit to some form of breath or chemical test to determine your blood alcohol content. If you are not arrested after testing, you are free to leave.

If you encounter a sobriety checkpoint and are arrested for drunk driving, you will want to know your rights. You should contact a DUI lawyer as soon after your arrest as possible. A DUI lawyer can help you understand your rights and the legal defenses available to you.

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