Are DUI Checkpoints Constitutional?

Posted by Jon Ibanez on December 28th, 2015

As the New Year approaches, law enforcement efforts to halt drunk driving is more elevated than it has been all of 2015. Part of the anti-DUI efforts will inevitably include DUI checkpoints. When I warn friends and family of the DUI checkpoints, often I get the question: how are DUI checkpoints constitutional?

Normally, if an officer wants to stop a vehicle, they must have probable cause to believe that the driver committed a crime. And normally when an officer pulls someone over, the driver commits a traffic violation in the officer’s presence thus giving them the probable cause to be pulled over.

Such is not the case with DUI checkpoints. While officers do, in fact, stop drivers at checkpoints, unfortunately they don’t need the generally required probable cause.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Michigan v. Dept. of State Police v. Sitz held that, while random checkpoints technically violate the 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure, the governmental interest in preventing drunk driving outweighs the relatively minor infringement on the right not to be stopped absent probable cause.

The Court said, “[T]he balance of the State’s interest in preventing drunken driving, the extent to which this system can reasonably be said to advance that interest, and the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists who are briefly stopped, weighs in favor of the state program. We therefore hold that it is consistent with the Fourth Amendment.”

The California Supreme Court held in Ingersoll v. Palmer that random sobriety checkpoints are considered “administrative procedures” instead of “criminal investigations” making them more akin to agricultural checkpoints and airport screenings. The Court went on to say that there are factors which must be weighed to help determine the constitutionality of the checkpoint:

1.) The location of the checkpoint should be made at the supervisory level.

2.) The selection of vehicles stopped should be based on a neutral mathematical formula (such as every third car) rather than officer discretion.

3.) The checkpoint must be safe with proper lighting and signs.

4.) The checkpoint must be visible to oncoming motorists.

5.) The location of the checkpoint must be reasonable and in area most likely to yield DUI arrests.

6.) The time and duration of the checkpoint should minimize intrusiveness and maximize effectiveness.

7.) The length of the detention of motorists should be no longer than necessary to determine if a person is driving drunk.

8.) Law enforcement should publicize the checkpoint to minimize intrusiveness and maximize the deterrent effect of the checkpoint.  In 1993, the California Supreme Court, in People v. Banks, stated that although publicity is not a requirement of checkpoints, it helps.

In addition to these factors, the Court stated that motorists who seek to avoid the checkpoint must be allowed to do so. However, most checkpoints have officers waiting in idle patrol cars ready to chase down motorists who attempt to leave. It goes without saying that if an officer sees a motorize attempt to avoid a checkpoint, they’re automatically suspicious that the person is driving drunk.

While officers who witness motorists driving away from a checkpoint might be suspicious, there’s not much they can do about it…that is, unless they see you commit a traffic violation in the process of turning around.

If you don’t opt to turn around, exercise your 5th amend rights and remain silent. The officers posted at the checkpoint will likely ask where you’re coming from, where you’re going to, and whether you’ve had anything to drink. You do not need to answer these questions and you can respectfully decline.

The officers may request that you take a preliminary screening alcohol test, otherwise known as a pre-arrest breathalyzer. This too you have the right to decline and you should. The only time a drive must submit to a chemical test, whether a breath test or a blood test, is after that driver has been lawfully arrested on suspicion of a California DUI.

Lastly, the officers at a DUI checkpoint may ask drivers to perform field sobriety tests. As I’ve said multiple time before, field sobriety checkpoints are notoriously unreliable and subject to the self-serving interpretations of the officer. Fortunately, these too are optional. Never voluntarily perform these tests. While you may think you can “pass” them, many times even sober people fail.

Yes, California DUI checkpoints are constitutional. However, there are things that you can do this New Years to protect yourself should you find yourself driving through one.

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  • Daniel Quackenbush

    Actually, police only need “reasonable suspicion,” to stop a vehicle. It is a lesser standard than probable cause. Checkpoints require no suspicion whatsoever, which is why I say they are unconstitutional by violating the Fourth Amendment. The police are supposed to have probable cause only if they decide to make an arrest, at least until the Supreme Court might decide in the future to declare otherwise.

    I think it is more accurate to say that checkpoints are unconstitutional but the Supreme Court has said that they are not unconstitutio

  • I agree: DUI checkpoints are permissible only because the Supreme Court says they are. In fact, there are no exceptions for checkpoints within the Fifth Amendment — and Chief Justice Rehnquist reluctantly admitted this, but then held that the “minimal intrusions” on a citizens right to privacy under the Fifth Amendment were “outweighed” by the government’s right to make the highways safe.

  • DUIBlog

    I agree: DUI checkpoints are permissible only because the Supreme Court says they are. In fact, there are no exceptions for checkpoints within the Fifth Amendment — and Chief Justice Rehnquist reluctantly admitted this, but then held that the “minimal intrusions” on a citizens right to privacy under the Fifth Amendment were “outweighed” by the government’s right to make the highways safe.

  • I am curious, How many actual drunk drivers are taken into custody at DUI checkpoints. I previously read that there are few DUI arrests per roadblock. I searched, and cannot find any statistics.

  • DUIBlog

    Unfortunately, such statistics are not kept. As it stands today, very, very few drivers who go through a DUI Checkpoint are arrested for a DUI. Non-official estimates place the number at under 1%.

    As it stands today, DUI Checkpoints serve two purposes: First, as a deterrent to DUI Drivers. Second, as a means for municipalities and police departments to raise revenues through court fees, automobile impound fees, and related DUI costs that the driver will have to pay if convicted.

  • Yes, the purpose is to get drunk drivers off the road, and the (illegal) ROADBLOCKS fail in that, But yes Police agencies make windfall overtime at taxpayer expense as well as obscene profits for Towing Companies who split the profits with police agencies. In California under some situations cars impounded are kept for a mandatory 30 days, do the math, 30 days x average $100 a day results in the working poor that may not have even been drunk lose their transportation. I urge members of congress to defund this failed Traffic Safety agency program.

  • jw Chadwick

    30 days?? Are you Serious?? Doesn’t the state realize or care the extreme financial hardship this causes even though a checkpoint isn’t a conviction of a dui offense.
    I do remember dui checkpoints/road blocks in California. Supposedly they were posted in local papers but a lot of people dont check papers. I remember turning around about a mile before I was to enter the narrowed lanes 1/2 mile ahead. Wasn’t at all drunk or even drinking and I had nothing to hide. I just thought it was completely uncalled for and I wasnt about to put up with having a mag lite in my face answering redundant questions. California seemed to be more concerned to harass average citizens rather than go after actual criminals like illegal immigrants and this was about 1992.

  • yes jw, there have been some changes, but driving an unregistered vehicle without proof of insurance, I believe still has a 30 day impound. Now illegals can obtain a drivers license.

  • jw Chadwick

    The illegals obtaining dls?? That crap started about 1990 when I got out of hs. Those bastards, would cause an accident, leave the scene never to be found. Only go back to Mexico for a year, then come back using a another name and get a dl under that changed name.
    I accidentally backed into an illegals car about 93, right before I left for few years. He wasn’t happy with my ins companys payout and somehow got the accident reported six months later as a hit and run, with no ins. Total b.s., I was in boot camp then a few technical schools with the navy in another state and didn’t even know until about mid 96 that my ca. lic. was suspended.
    So I just I paid a 540$ fine and got my lic in my home state as California courts, Corona in particular seemed have illegal immigrants rights front and center over mine and what was even more disgusting is all of this was done without even verifying who I was,my address or even giving me voice in the manner. This illegal immigrant lied to the DMV and in the police report six months after the fact, all without any verification of a witness or proof, simply on his word. I showed the insurance proof of payout Corona district court, had the warrant squashed for me right there and nothing ever happens to that guy as far as I know.