Sobriety checkpoints are an exception to the rule that law enforcement officers must have probable cause to pull someone over. Probable cause for a traffic stop refers to:
- A defect in the vehicle that could affect safety of self or others,
- Moving or traffic violations, or
- Driving in a way that indicates that the driver might be driving under the influence.
The courts have upheld sobriety checkpoints as legal to act as a deterrent to driving under the influence and to identify those who are drunk driving1. These types of checkpoints pass constitutional scrutiny in the California Constitution because the California Supreme Court considers them administrative procedures, rather like an airport security check, and therefore an exception to the rule that a law enforcement officer must have probable cause to initiate a traffic stop2.
Legality of Checkpoints
The landmark case in California regarding the legality of sobriety checkpoints is Ingersoll v. Palmer. This case sets out the following eight guidelines in order for the security checkpoint to be considered constitutional:
- Supervising officers must make all constitutional decisions,
- The criteria for stopping motorists must be neutral,
- The sobriety checkpoint must be reasonably located,
- Adequate safety precautions must be taken,
- The checkpoint’s time and duration should reflect good judgment,
- The checkpoint must exhibit sufficient indicia of its official nature,
- Drivers should be detained a minimal amount of time, and
- DUI roadblocks should be publicly advertised in advance3.
If the police fail to comply with these criteria, then the checkpoint validity can be challenged. It is possible for a DUI charge to be dismissed for the failure to adhere to the checkpoint procedures.
Analysing Your Appearance
At a sobriety checkpoint the law enforcement officer will ask the driver for his license and registration. After the officer validates your license and registration, he will ask you some brief questions to check for signs of being under the influence, which include the following:
- Smell of alcohol,
- Alcohol in your vehicle,
- Slurred speech,
- Red or watery eyes, and other signs of physical impairment.
If you display signs of driving under the influence, the officer will then ask you to perform field sobriety tests and likely a request for a preliminary alcohol screen (PAS). If after the field sobriety tests, the law enforcement officer has reasonable suspicion that you were driving under the influence he will place you under arrest.
Checkpoint Case Law
Various cases from the 1970s established standards for the court’s review of checkpoints in DWI cases. One of the first cases to address checkpoints was U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte.4 This case involved a challenge to a permanent checkpoint near a border. For 4th Amendment purposes, generally a seizure is unreasonable absent an individualized suspicion. Most importantly the Martinez-Fuerte case established post-stop judicial review for claims that a particular exercise of discretion in locating or operating a checkpoint was unreasonable.5
A more recognized case is Brown v. Texas, which posed a challenge to a seizure of an individual absent an individualized suspicion. In this case the court used a 3-prong test to determine the constitutionality of the seizure, weighing the gravity of public concerns, the degree the seizure advances this interest, and the severity of interference with individual liberty.6 The court’s central concern in balancing these factors was to avoid arbitrary invasion at the “unfettered discretion of officers in the field.” The court stated that the plan for a seizure must contain “explicit, neutral limitations on the conduct of individual officers.7
More recently, the case of Michigan State Police v. Sitz involved a challenge to a sobriety checkpoint. The State police and Checkpoint Advisory Committee involved in this case created guidelines setting forth procedures governing checkpoint operations, site selection and publicity. During this checkpoint all vehicles were stopped. The court found that detention of a person beyond initial seizure for more extensive field sobriety testing requires individualized suspicion.8
DUI Checkpoint FAQs
What happens if I refuse a breath test?
There are legal penalties for refusing a breath test. On a 1st DUI, a refusal results in a 1-year suspension of your license, 2 extra days of jail time and a 9 month DUI school. On a 2nd DUI the penalties are more severe and include 96 hours extra jail time and a 2-year license revocation. The court may also view a refusal as consciousness of guilt. You can refuse a breath test however you should be aware of the consequences in doing so.
What happens if I am driving without a valid license when I stop at a DUI checkpoint?
If you are currently driving without a valid drivers’ license, you may be charged with driving without a valid license or driving on a suspended license even though the checkpoint is for driving under the influence. However, as long as a driver with a valid license can drive the car away by the end of the checkpoint, your car cannot be impounded for having no valid license alone. ((Cal. Veh. Code Section 2814.2(b), (c))
Is there somewhere I can find out where future sobriety checkpoints will be located?
Yes. One of the eight guidelines for a proper sobriety checkpoint is that they have to be publicly advertised in advance. Usually you can find this information on law enforcement websites, advertisements, local newspapers, local news stations, and more recently on phone apps.
What Is the purpose behind sobriety checkpoints?
The reasoning behind sobriety checkpoints is to reduce the number of alcohol related deaths, injuries or suffering by deterring drunk drivers from getting in their car after consuming alcoholic beverages. Simply knowing that a checkpoint could be set up deters drinking and driving
Can the officer take my car at a checkpoint?
In 2012 a new law took place in California, which prohibits police from impounding a car at sobriety checkpoints if the only offense of the driver is driving without a license.1 Under old laws, unlicensed drivers’ cars would be impounded for 30 days and incurred fees for housing the car. Now a person driving without a license who goes through a checkpoint is able to have a licensed driver come take his or her car home.
- Vehicle Code 2814.2(b)-(c) – Unlicensed drivers stopped at DUI checkpoints. (“(b) Notwithstanding Section 14602.6 or 14607.6, a peace officer or any other authorized person shall not cause the impoundment of a vehicle at a sobriety checkpoint if the driver’s only offense is a violation of Section 12500 [driving without a valid license]. (c) During the conduct of a sobriety checkpoint, if the law enforcement officer encounters a driver who is in violation of Section 12500, the law enforcement officer shall make a reasonable attempt to identify the registered owner of the vehicle. If the registered owner is present, or the officer is able to identify the registered owner and obtain the registered owner’s authorization to release the motor vehicle to a licensed driver by the end of the checkpoint, the vehicle shall be released to either the registered owner of the vehicle if he or she is a licensed driver or to the licensed driver authorized by the registered owner of the vehicle [↩]
What are my constitutional rights in terms of a checkpoint?
The California Supreme Court has held DUI checkpoints to be like “administrative inspections” and therefore are an exception to the 4th Amendment, which requires probable cause.
Can I turn around before a checkpoint?
In California there is no law that states you cannot turn around before a checkpoint. Additionally, departmental rules prohibit an officer to stop a driver on the sole basis that they intentionally were avoiding a checkpoint. If you decide to turn around before a checkpoint you should do so legally and safely because normal traffic rules still apply. An officer can still pull you over if in avoiding the checkpoint you commit a traffic violation or display signs of drinking and driving.
If the officer asks me to perform field sobriety tests can I refuse?
You can refuse to perform the field sobriety tests. An officer likely has already made his judgment regarding your level of intoxication prior to requesting performance of the field sobriety tests. Unlike refusal of chemical test (breath or blood), refusal of the field sobriety tests does not result in legal penalties.
Spotting Potential Issues
Police Mistakes – Sometimes it is possible to get your DUI charges reduced or dismissed based on a strong argument in defense that the law enforcement officer made an error in the lawful procedure of a DUI stop or sobriety checkpoint. The procedures in California are very strict and there is always a possibility of using law enforcement error as a dui defense.
No Probable Cause – In general, law enforcement officers need probable cause in order to pull you over. However, in the case of a sobriety checkpoint, they need no probable cause because it is an administrative procedure.
Gerd or Acid Reflux – If you have gastro intestinal reflux disease and you had an episode of gerd prior to taking a breath test through a preliminary alcohol screening device than your blood alcohol concentration may have been falsely high.
Hiring An Attorney
Law enforcement officers are required to follow very strict rules at a sobriety checkpoint. If you are arrested at a DUI checkpoint, it may be possible for an attorney to get the charges dismissed if the law enforcement officers did not follow these rules. Sobriety checkpoints are legal in nature but the specific checkpoint that you were arrested at may have some flaws that will be enough of a defense to get your charges dropped or reduced.
If you have any questions please leave them in the comments below and an attorney will answer them immediatly.
If you need to speak to an attorney about your DUI case, please call our office at: (818) 351-9555.
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- Vehicle Code 2814.2(a) A driver of a motor vehicle shall stop and submit to a sobriety checkpoint inspection conducted by a law enforcement agency when signs and displays are posted requiring that stop.” [↩]
- Ingersoll v. Palmer, 43 Cal.3d 1321 [↩]
- Id [↩]
- U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976 [↩]
- Id at 543. [↩]
- Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47 (1979 [↩]
- Id at 51 [↩]
- Michigan State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990 [↩]