Despite the continued efforts of law enforcement and state lawmakers, impaired driving continues to be a serious safety concern on the nation's roadways as it's the cause of countless deaths and accidents each year.
To combat drunk driving, law enforcement in many jurisdictions uses DUI checkpoints. Although these roadblocks can be effective tools for DUI enforcement, many people feel that it's wrong for police to stop cars without evidence of wrongdoing.
This article outlines how DUI checkpoints normally work and what the courts have said about the legality of these types of police roadblocks.
DUI checkpoints are law enforcement roadblocks that are designed to catch DUI offenders. There are, of course, variations in how law enforcement conducts DUI checkpoints. However, the basics of how these roadblocks work are fairly consistent.
Normally, police set up DUI checkpoints near areas of alcohol consumption—close to downtown areas where bars and nightclubs are located. Police also look for places where all or most traffic is funneled to one main roadway. In other words, police strategically place DUI checkpoints in locations that drivers can't easily avoid by going around.
DUI checkpoints are temporary and generally only operate for an hour or two. Police checkpoints tend to occur after midnight or when drinking establishments are set to close. It's also common for police to schedule DUI checkpoints on holiday weekends or around the time of big events like the Super Bowl.
Law enforcement agencies normally announce ahead of time when they'll be conducting DUI checkpoints. But these announcements generally don't include the specific location.
DUI checkpoints are normally highly visible. It's common for there to be multiple police cars with lights flashing as well as road signs notifying drivers that a sobriety checkpoint is up ahead.
Police typically use traffic control devices such as cones to narrow traffic into a single lane. (Most of the time, police are stopping traffic only in one direction.) After merging into one lane, the cars will proceed up to the attending officer, who will be on foot, directing traffic and interacting with drivers.
The officer typically requests that the driver roll down his or her window and will ask the driver some questions. Normally, the officer will specifically ask the driver if he or she has had anything to drink. But the officer will also be on the lookout for other signs of intoxication such as slurred speech or bloodshot eyes. If the officer doesn't observe any evidence of impairment, he or she will generally waive the driver through.
However, where there are indicators of drunkenness like the odor of alcohol, the officer will normally direct the driver to pull over for further investigation. Typically, other officers who are conducting the more in-depth investigations will take over at this point. These officers might ask the driver more questions about alcohol and drug use or request the driver perform field sobriety tests or take a breathalyzer. Depending on the situation, the investigating officers might decide there's probable cause to believe the driver is under the influence and make an arrest or conclude the driver isn't drunk and allow them to go on their way.
Technically, turning to avoid a DUI checkpoint isn't illegal as long as you comply with all traffic laws when doing so. However, police often put DUI checkpoints in locations that drivers can't avoid unless they make an illegal U-turn.
Generally, officers become highly suspect of drivers who intentionally avoid a DUI checkpoint and might look for other traffic violations to justify initiating a traffic stop.
The main point of contention with DUI checkpoints is that they require law-abiding drivers to stop their vehicles without any evidence of criminal activity. Lots of drivers have challenged sobriety checkpoints in court, and courts have come to different conclusions as to whether DUI checkpoints are legal. Generally, the legality of DUI checkpoints depends on the laws of the state you live in.
The 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unlawful searches and seizures. This protection generally prohibits police from stopping vehicles without evidence of a crime or traffic violation. But at DUI checkpoints, police do just that—they require drivers to stop without specific evidence of any wrongdoing. So how can sobriety checkpoints be legal?
The U.S. Supreme Court considered this issue and found that while DUI checkpoints are seizures, they do not necessarily violate the driver's constitutional rights. The Supreme Court essentially carved out an exception to the normal rules for DUI checkpoints. The justification the Supreme Court provided was that the government's legitimate interest in reducing impaired driving outweighs the temporary inconvenience to drivers.
However, the Supreme Court warned there are limits to what law enforcement can do at DUI checkpoints. After all, the Supreme Court's ruling on this issue was premised on DUI checkpoints not posing a substantial inconvenience or invasion of privacy for drivers. So DUI checkpoints can become illegal if they cause substantial delays for drivers or police start doing things like searching vehicles without adequate justification.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has found that DUI checkpoints generally don't violate the federal constitution, state law can provide drivers with rights and protections beyond what the federal constitution requires.
Each state has its own constitution that—while often similar to the U.S. Constitution—can be more protective of drivers' rights. State legislatures can also enact laws that restrict the use of DUI checkpoints in the state. As a result, a handful of states prohibit the use of DUI checkpoints altogether. These include:
Many other states have restrictions and guidelines that police must follow when conducting DUI checkpoints.
The law related to DUI checkpoints is complicated, to say the least. And DUI penalties are serious and a conviction can impact your finances, freedom, license, and employment. If you've been arrested for driving under the influence, seek the assistance of a qualified attorney to see what arguments, defenses, or other options you may have.