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Sobriety Checkpoints

Review of the Proper Purpose of DUI Sobriety Checkpoints

DUI sobriety checkpoints in the state of California are popular with local police departments as they are able to make many arrest for Vehicle Code 23153 VC driving under the influence in a short amount of time.

The checkpoints, however, have been a subject of hot debate as the legal process is outside the rules of conduct for arresting drunk drivers.

Sobriety Checkpoints in California
Police are required to follow several specific rules at DUI sobriety checkpoints in California.

For example, law enforcement officers must normally have probable cause to conduct a traffic stop, not some just random pull over of all drivers.

Put simply, DUI checkpoint laws allow police to stop anyone they wish who are just driving through an area and have not violated any laws.

In order to legally pull people over in this manner, police must adhere to certain rules. When they fail to follow every rule at a DUI checkpoint, then your constitutional rights may have been violated.

Police use roadside sobriety checkpoints to stop every vehicle, or every third, tenth, or other number of vehicles, to check for driver intoxication or impairment.

The proper purpose for sobriety checkpoints is to deter drunk or impaired driving and reduce DUI involved accidents and injuries.

However, sobriety checkpoints can be controversial for improper profiling and harassment of innocent drivers, the delay, distraction, and roadway hazards they can cause, and police abuse of individual rights.

Nonetheless, Centers for Disease Control information indicates that thirty-eight states currently authorize sobriety checkpoints.

Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys will review the laws below

The Constitutionality of Sobriety Checkpoints

Individuals have Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

Californians possess similar rights under the state's constitution. Generally, those rights require that state and local police have reasonable suspicion of the violation of the law before making a traffic stop.

DUI stops and investigations typically occur when police observe a driver operating a vehicle across the centerline or another erratic fashion. Police may also observe signs of driver intoxication at the scene of a motor vehicle accident.

Sobriety checkpoints go beyond those conventional practices. Some states have rejected sobriety checkpoints as a violation of state constitutional rights or poor policy and practice.

However, both the U.S. Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court have held that sobriety checkpoints are constitutional as administrative inspections.

These type of inspections, like OSHA inspections of workplaces and TSA inspections of air travelers, generally address public health and safety according to neutral, non-burdensome practices.

California permits sobriety checkpoints. Properly operated checkpoints likely won't violate constitutional rights, although their improper conduct can be a point of contention as a DUI defense.

Why are DUI Checkpoints Legal?

DUI checkpoints in California are a preferred method because they are believed to act as a deterrent to drunk driving. As noted, the Supreme Court has found them legal because they are considered “administrative” procedures.

For example, airport security is allowed to search your luggage without a warrant. Thus, police officers at a DUI roadblock can check for signs of intoxication without probable cause.

Sobriety checkpoints have been challenged, such as the landmark case, Ingersoll v. Palmer, where the court ruled they are legal as long as they follow specific guidelines, such as:

  • drivers can't be detained any longer than necessary,
  • the criteria for stopping drivers must be unbiased,
  • supervising officer has to be present for all constitutional decisions

In review, the court decision established a set of many rules and regulations that must be followed for a DUI sobriety checkpoint to remain legal.

Proper Operation of Sobriety Checkpoints

Police must arrange and conduct sobriety checkpoints according to California Supreme Court guidelines. As noted, there are established requirements for proper police operation of sobriety checkpoints:

  • that supervisors must control checkpoint operations;
  • reasons for stopping motorists must be neutral (no profiling);
  • officers must reasonably locate the checkpoint for traffic;
  • officers must ensure adequate checkpoint safety precautions;
  • officers must exercise good judgment in checkpoint time and duration;
  • officers must identify the checkpoint as official in nature;
  • officers may detain drivers for only minimal time; and
  • officials must advertise the checkpoint roadblocks in advance.

Consistent with these requirements, police may choose a weekend evening and highway stretch frequented by drunk drivers, directing traffic into limited lanes and bringing vehicles to a stop.

Officers will require drivers to open the vehicle window, converse briefly with the driver, and show driver's license and vehicle registration.

Officers generally should detain drivers further only if the driver smells of alcohol, has slurred speech or other signs of impairment, or has alcohol or drugs visible within the vehicle.

Officers may request field sobriety tests, preliminary alcohol screening tests, or cheek swabs from drivers whose conduct or appearance raises suspicion of intoxication or impairment.

It is your legal right to bypass a checkpoint, but only if you don't break the law or cause any type of traffic hazard, which is discussed below.

Driver Conduct 

Drivers may avoid sobriety checkpoints by turning aside or turning around if they can safely do so without violating traffic laws.

Review police press releases and local news sites, or check using internet services like Waze, to learn in advance of sobriety checkpoints.

Law enforcement agencies normally give drivers sufficient warning allowing them to safely avoid the checkpoint and most departmental rules prohibits their officers from stopping drivers solely because they intentionally avoided the checkpoint.

However, police are still allowed to pull over a driver who is avoiding a checkpoint if they commit a traffic violation, has defective equipment such as a broken tail light, or if their driving shows obvious signs of intoxication.

Otherwise, California Vehicle Code 2814.2 requires drivers to stop at adequately marked checkpoints:

  • “A motor vehicle driver shall stop and submit to a sobriety checkpoint inspection conducted by a law enforcement agency when signs and displays are posted requiring that stop.”

Under Vehicle Code 12951 and other law, drivers must also produce license and registration on officer request, although Vehicle Code 2814.2 provides that officers are not to impound the vehicle of a driver who lacks a valid driver's license if the officers can identify an owner to whom to release the vehicle.

Drivers should generally remain calm and cooperative and obey police directions and orders at sobriety checkpoints.

Failure to do so may result in criminal charges of evading or fleeing from police, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, assault on a peace officer, and other crimes.

Drivers need not answer questions beyond basic identifying information and to produce license and registration.

Drivers need not, for instance, explain where they are headed, where they've just been, or whether they have had anything to eat or drink.

Best Defenses to Sobriety Checkpoint DUI Charges

Defendants charged with DUI crimes discovered at California sobriety checkpoints may raise any of the defenses available to defendants whose DUI charges arose in ordinary circumstances not involving a checkpoint, such as:

  • police did not remain neutral in who they stopped,
  • field sobriety tests were not properly administered,
  • checkpoint was not clearly or properly marked.

Perhaps we can make a reasonable argument that there was an improper administration of field sobriety tests, calibration of test equipment, and measurement and reporting of results.

Defenses to Sobriety Checkpoint DUI Charges in California
If charged with a DUI at a sobriety checkpoint, we can use several different defense strategies.

Other defenses can also include the lack of reasonable suspicion to require testing and violation of rights to counsel and the privilege against self-incrimination.

The improper conduct of the sobriety checkpoint itself, in violation of California Supreme Court requirements, may raise other defense issues.

Drivers who were arrested at a DUI sobriety checkpoint in California might be able to challenge their arrest on constitutional grounds

If the police don't follow all the rules at a DUI checkpoint, it might be possible to have your entire case dismissed.

Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles County. You can contact our firm for an initial consultation at (310) 328-3776, or fill out our contact form.

We speak English, Russian, Armenian, and Spanish.

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