Sobriety checkpoints, also called DUI checkpoints, are temporary roadblocks that law enforcement officers use to screen motorists for drunk driving-related offenses. Thirty-eight states in the country utilize sobriety checkpoints, while twelve states do not. Some states prohibit the use of sobriety checkpoints, including Texas. These states have concluded that sobriety checkpoints violate the United States Constitution’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures and deprive drivers of their due process rights. For states that permit the practice, the legal basis for a DUI checkpoint is typically grounded in the federal constitution in addition to the state constitution. Some states, like Hawaii and North Carolina, have enacted statutes that explicitly provide for DUI checkpoints.
DUI Checkpoints Are Legal Under the Fourth Amendment
Under federal law, DUI checkpoints are legal if they are closely related to roadway safety and are not discriminatory. However, DUI checkpoints are prohibited in some states.
In order for a DUI checkpoint to pass legal scrutiny, most courts require that the operation is reasonable in both its creation and execution. A state authority must call for the checkpoint and must provide a logical reason regarding why the sobriety checkpoint is necessary at a particular location. After concluding that the government official possessed a logical basis for imposing the DUI checkpoint, courts explore a series of criteria regarding the execution of the checkpoint.
First, supervising law enforcement officials must select the location of the checkpoint and the procedures to be used. In other words, a group of police officers simply cannot decide to block a public road for the purpose of conducting randomized alcohol screening tests. The DUI checkpoint must be advertised in advance of the actual event so that the public has prior notice that the checkpoint will occur at a particular time and place.
Next, drivers must be selected for screening according to a neutral formula. An officer cannot simply stop a driver at a DUI checkpoint. Instead, the driver must exhibit a behavior included on a list of indicators, like swerving, speeding, appearing to be drunk, slurred speech, or an odor of alcohol on the driver’s breath.
Execution of DUI Checkpoints
Generally, DUI checkpoints must be:
Planned by supervising law enforcement officials
Advertised in advance
Neutral toward drivers
Clearly associated with police authority
Subject to reasonable time limits
Efficient in detaining drivers
The officers conducting the checkpoint must utilize sufficient safety measures and precautions, including adequate lighting, warning signs, and clearly identifiable police vehicles. A DUI checkpoint must be clearly associated with a police authority, and it cannot constitute a speed trap or covert operation. Additionally, the checkpoint must be clearly identified as an official government operation to ensure motorists that the checkpoint is legitimate.
A DUI checkpoint is subject to reasonable time limitations. A police department cannot simply conduct a never-ending DUI checkpoint. Instead, the length of the checkpoint must reflect the law enforcement officer’s good judgment in light of the stated reasons for conducting the checkpoint.
When it comes to detaining motorists who are suspected of driving under the influence, the court will consider the average length of each detention and the officer’s basis for detaining a motorist. A DUI checkpoint is often a hectic and chaotic place with many police officials milling about. The officers conducting the traffic stop must employ procedures that ensure a motorist is not detained any longer than is necessary.
State-authorized DUI checkpoint practices may include background checks, warrant searches, and license inspections, in addition to field sobriety tests.
Each state that authorizes DUI checkpoints has employed different acceptable practices and protocols. A law enforcement officer must abide by these rules at all times and can only act within the scope and authority of the checkpoint. For example, it is probably unlawful for a DUI checkpoint to require passing motorists to submit their vehicle to a search before passing through the checkpoint. Most states permit officers to run background checks, warrant searches, and driver’s license inspections. Officers are typically also permitted to conduct basic field sobriety tests on motorists who appear to be driving while under the influence.
In the event an officer determines that a motorist passing through the checkpoint is driving while under the influence, the officer can arrest the driver and have the vehicle impounded.