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Are DUI Checkpoints Constitutional?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Jun 24, 2024

In California, DUI checkpoints often cause contention among drivers and constitutional watchdogs. The primary question revolves around whether these checkpoints infringe upon drivers' Fourth Amendment rights, which protect citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement without probable cause.

Under both the California and U.S. Constitutions, DUI checkpoints are considered legal, as confirmed and validated by several court cases.

Are DUI Checkpoints Constitutional in California?
DUI sobriety checkpoints in California have been mostly upheld as legal.

Simply put, DUI checkpoints have mostly been upheld as legal in California, but drivers who are arrested at a DUI sobriety checkpoint might be able to challenge their arrest on constitutional grounds.

While the police do not need probable cause to stop drivers at a checkpoint, the checkpoint must meet specific requirements under the United States and California constitutions.

The California Supreme Court has ruled that DUI checkpoints are "administrative inspections," similar to airport screenings. Thus, they are an exception to the Fourth Amendment rule that a police officer must have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to initiate a DUI investigation.

The law enforcement agency operating a sobriety checkpoint will section off some roads. This will typically cause vehicles to merge into one or two lanes before coming to a stop.

The police officer will ask the driver to roll down the window, and the officer will ask to see the driver's license and registration. They will usually also engage the driver in a brief discussion to help the officer evaluate whether someone may be driving under the influence.

They are looking for any signs of intoxication, such as the smell of alcohol, slurred speech, red, watery eyes, alcoholic beverages in the car, etc.

DUI Checkpoints and the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution safeguards individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures. Ordinarily, law enforcement requires probable cause to conduct a search or stop a vehicle.

Fourth Amendment

Consequently, DUI sobriety checkpoints, where drivers are stopped without individualized suspicion, appear to contradict this protection at first glance. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that DUI checkpoints are constitutional under certain conditions.

In the landmark case Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz (1990), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of DUI checkpoints, asserting that the state's interest in preventing drunk driving outweighed the minor intrusion on motorists' Fourth Amendment rights.

The Court emphasized that such checkpoints serve a significant public safety function, deterring impaired driving and reducing alcohol-related accidents. This ruling established that DUI checkpoints are permissible if they adhere to specific guidelines, ensuring minimal inconvenience and fairness.

The legal requirements for California DUI sobriety checkpoints are as follows:

  • The checkpoint must exhibit sufficient signs of its nature.
  • The criteria for stopping motorists must be neutral.
  • Drivers should be detained for a minimal amount of time.
  • The checkpoint's duration should reflect sound judgment.
  • The checkpoint must be reasonably located.
  • Supervising officers must make all decisions.
  • Adequate safety precautions must be taken.
  • Publicly advertised a roadblock in advance.

What is California's Legal Framework?

As noted, the U.S. and California state constitutions permit DUI checkpoints, provided law enforcement agencies follow strict guidelines to balance public safety interests with individual rights. The California Supreme Court reinforced this stance in Ingersoll v. Palmer (1987), setting forth a detailed framework for legally implementing DUI checkpoints.

Rules for DUI Checkpoints

California law mandates that law enforcement follow specific critical rules when setting up DUI checkpoints, including the following:

  • Strategic Location: DUI checkpoints must be in areas with a history of drunk driving incidents. This underscores that the primary goal of DUI checkpoints is to deter DUI, not to ensnare American citizens without probable cause.
  • Visibility and Safety: Officers must take adequate safety precautions, including making checkpoints clearly visible to approaching motorists through flashing lights, warning signs, and proper traffic layouts.
  • Minimal Intrusiveness: The duration and timing of checkpoints should not unduly interfere with traffic flow. Supervising officers must exercise good judgment to keep delays minimal.
  • Neutral Stopping Criteria: Motorists cannot be stopped arbitrarily or based on profiling (e.g., type of car or the driver's race) but through neutral criteria such as every third or fourth vehicle.
  • Brief Detentions: Law enforcement can detain drivers only long enough to ask brief questions and observe for signs of impairment. Extended detentions require additional probable cause.
  • Public Notice: The police are supposed to provide advance public notification of upcoming DUI checkpoints, typically through local newspapers, news outlets, and police department websites. This transparency aims to inform the public while still serving as a deterrent. However, in People v. Banks (1993), the California Supreme Court ruled that failing to give advance notice did not automatically make a DUI checkpoint unconstitutional.

What Should You Expect at a DUI Checkpoint?

If you encounter a DUI checkpoint in California, understanding the procedure can alleviate some concerns and help you navigate the situation more smoothly.

  • Approach with Caution: As you approach the checkpoint, reduce your speed, follow any instructions given by signage or officers, and be prepared to stop.
  • Initial Interaction: An officer will briefly speak with you, often asking simple questions such as "Have you had anything to drink tonight?" They will also look for visible signs of impairment, such as slurred speech or the smell of alcohol.
  • Field Sobriety Tests: If the officer suspects impairment, you may be further detained and asked to perform field sobriety tests or submit to a breathalyzer test. Remember that refusing these tests can have legal consequences, including license suspension.
  • Know Your Rights: You also have rights while cooperating with law enforcement. You are not required to answer all questions beyond basic identification information. Politely declining to provide additional information without an attorney present is within your rights.

What About Issues with a Driver's License?

A driver not carrying their license can be charged with Vehicle Code 12951 VC, failing to display a driver's license, an infraction that carries a fine. Suppose the driver has no license or was suspended or revoked. In this case, they can be charged with the following:

The police cannot automatically impound vehicles of unlicensed drivers. The California Legislature enacted Assembly Bill 353, codified as Vehicle Code 2814.2 VC, which prohibits the immediate impoundment of a car at a sobriety checkpoint if the driver's only offense is driving without a valid license.

Are You Allowed to Turn Around to Avoid a DUI Checkpoint?

In California, turning around to avoid a DUI checkpoint is not technically illegal as long as the turn does not violate traffic rules or endanger anyone's safety.

However, law enforcement may view this as suspicious behavior and, if they observe any impairment, have probable cause to conduct a stop or field sobriety test.

Notably, you can challenge a DUI checkpoint that fails to follow the rules. Remember that a DUI checkpoint is only constitutional if it follows the ground rules established to protect people's rights.

If you are arrested and charged with DUI at a checkpoint that clearly did not follow one or more of the rules, an experienced California criminal defense attorney can use this fact as a valid defense to have the evidence suppressed or the charges dismissed due to a failure to follow due process and stopping you without probable cause.

Contact our law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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