We’ve all been driving home, late at night, usually on the weekend, and seen a DUI checkpoint. The floodlights, the cones, the police officers checking and speaking with each driver. I remember the first time I saw a DUI checkpoint, I thought: How can they do that? How can the government just stop everyone and check them without any reason? It seems to defy logic.
We Americans have so many rights. There are rules for when the police can stop you. Usually the police need some sort of reasonable suspicion to detain you, or probable cause that you committed a crime in their presence in order to arrest you.
Legality of Checkpoints: Balance of 3 Elements
But that all changed in 1990. In Michigan v. Sitz (1990) 496 U.S. 444, the US Supreme Court clearly stated that the appropriate test on whether DUI checkpoints were legal was to “balance the state’s interest in preventing accidents caused by drunk drivers, the effectiveness of the sobriety checkpoints in achieving that goal, and the level of intrusion on an individual’s privacy caused by the checkpoints.”
In determining that balancing test, the Court reasoned that the state’s interest in preventing accidents caused by drunk drivers was very high. This is because sadly there is so much drunk driving out there, and so many accidents and deaths as a result. The second part of the balancing, the effectiveness of the sobriety checkpoints, was determined to be effective enough to limit at least some drunk driving in the short term, and cause people to think about their decision to drink and drive. Lastly, the level of intrusion was weighed. Everyone knows that the US Constitution guarantees people their privacy. This is why the police can’t just detain you at any time. But in this case, in this special situation of trying to curb drunk driving, the Court held that the intrusion was so minor, that the balancing test still favored allowing the DUI checkpoints. The delay to each driver was calculated at 25 seconds. That’s really not that intrusive into someone’s life. Well, it is, but it’s not so intrusive as to be unconstitutional, according to the US Supreme Court.
Currently, 12 states do not conduct sobriety checkpoints. California is not one of those states. The California Supreme Court had declared them legal even before the Sitz decision in Ingersoll v. Palmer (1987) 43 Cal. 3d 1321. The California Supreme Court though gave us 8 guidelines that should be followed when the police set up a DUI checkpoint.
8 Guidelines If You Get a DUI From a Checkpoint
These 8 guidelines should be researched should you find yourself in a situation where you got a DUI from a checkpoint. They are your best defense.
- Supervising officers should make all operational decisions. This is to reduce the potential for arbitrary and capricious enforcement.
- The criteria on what cars are subjected to being stopped should be neutral. The determination of what cars are stopped needs be a mathematical selection, like, stopping every third car, or 5 consecutive cars out of every 10. Unless a field officer has probable cause to stop a car, they cannot unilaterally decide to stop a car other than the predetermined neutral criteria.
- The checkpoint must be reasonably located. A checkpoint should be located in an area where there is a high incidence of DUI-related arrests or accidents.
- Safety. Checkpoints should be in a location where it is safe for both traffic and the officers conducting the stops.
- The time and duration should reflect “good judgment.” This one is more ambiguous than some of the others, but reflects that the effectiveness of the stop should be weighed against the intrusiveness to drivers. A morning rush hour checkpoint would be ineffective and intrusive.
- The checkpoint should exhibit what it is. This is not about hiding the fact that there is a DUI checkpoint ahead. Motorists should know as they approach that they’re approaching an official checkpoint ahead. Usually this is accomplished by warning signs, flashing lights, and marked police officers.
- Drivers should be detained as short as possible. The officer should briefly question the driver and look for signs of intoxication. If those aren’t present, the driver should quickly be on their way.
- Checkpoints should be publically advertised in advance. If they are not advertised, that doesn’t make them unconstitutional. However, they should be because courts feel that it increases the deterrence of DUI driving, and it lessens the fear and surprise to law abiding motorists. Check your local paper or local news station for upcoming checkpoints.
In summary, yes, checkpoints are constitutionally allowed. However, there are many factors which need to be analyzed if you get a DUI in one of them. There are intricacies that need to be explored to fully evaluate the case. The above is not to be considered legal advice, only general information. If you have a DUI from a checkpoint that you need help with, please contact our office.