DUI Sobriety Checkpoints in California – Do Police Need Probable Cause?

No, California law enforcement officers do not need probable cause to stop a motorist at a DUI sobriety checkpoint. You could get arrested legally at a DUI sobriety checkpoint without the officer having probable cause to stop you.

You could, however, challenge the arrest if the checkpoint did not meet all the legal requirements our state law imposes on DUI sobriety checkpoints. A California DUI attorney can talk with you and examine whether a dismissal of the charges could be possible.

The Requirements for a DUI Sobriety Checkpoint to be Legal Under the California Constitution

In the 1987 case of Ingersoll v. Palmer, the California Supreme Court compared sobriety checkpoints to other administrative inspections, like airport screening searches. The Court held that law enforcement officers do not have to follow the 4th amendment at DUI roadblocks because these are administrative inspections, not searches and seizures.

The Court explained its decision to treat sobriety checkpoints as administrative inspections, not as searches and seizures, because “the primary purpose of the stop here was not to discover evidence of a crime or to make arrests of drunk drivers but to promote public safety by deterring intoxicated persons from driving on the public streets and highways.” 

As such, the California Supreme Court said that sobriety checkpoint stops do not require an individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. Instead, the Court said that the California constitution requires balancing the intrusiveness of the detention against the governmental interests.

Other Types of Regulatory Inspections and Stops

The Court in Ingersoll gave several examples of regulatory inspections in the stops that are legal according to the United States Supreme Court and California courts without the need for an individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. These include:

  • Border Patrol or immigration checkpoint inspections
  • Agricultural inspection checkpoints
  • Vehicle mechanical inspections
  • License and registration inspection checkpoints

The California Supreme Court in Ingersoll said that DUI sobriety checkpoints create a lesser intrusion on the individual’s 4th amendment interests than Border Patrol or immigration checkpoint inspections because, during the brief sobriety detention, neither the vehicle nor the occupant gets searched. The driver only needs to answer a question or two and possibly show the officer one’s driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance.

The Justification for California DUI Sobriety Checkpoints

Law enforcement agencies across the United States have used a variety of approaches to try to address the drunk driving problem. Public awareness campaigns, increased patrols and arrests, and more severe penalties for DUI convictions have done little to tackle one of the most significant challenges, which is that the public knows that their risk of getting caught driving while intoxicated is quite low.

The California Highway Patrol (CHP) developed a pilot project of sobriety checkpoints in order to try to discourage people from driving after consuming alcoholic beverages. The CHP said they would rather deter drunk driving than have to make arrests and charge people with DUIs. The goal, according to law enforcement, is to decrease DUI arrests and alcohol-related accidents, not increase them.

Of course, when law enforcement officers break the rules and set up an illegal DUI sobriety checkpoint for the purpose of trapping unsuspecting drivers, there might be grounds for challenging an arrest.

California Supreme Court Created Functional Guidelines to Minimize the Intrusiveness of DUI Sobriety Checkpoint Stops

The Ingersoll court articulated eight requirements for legal DUI sobriety checkpoints in California. These guidelines are:

  1. The typical law enforcement officer in the field cannot decide on his or her own to set up a sobriety checkpoint. The risk of allowing that conduct is the potential for arbitrary and capricious enforcement of the law. Instead, supervisory or command-level law enforcement personnel are the only ones who can legally decide to use a checkpoint, select the location, and create the operational procedures. The upper-level law enforcement personnel must distribute detailed program regulations to the officers who will work at the checkpoint.
  2. Officers in the field will have strict limits on their discretion when working at DUI sobriety checkpoints. An officer will not be allowed to decide to stop any particular driver or car without a legitimate basis for that decision. The field officers must use a neutral formula, for example, stopping every single driver who pulls up to the checkpoint or, in the interest of keeping traffic flowing, only stopping every 5th or 12th driver or some other neutral formula.
  3. The sobriety checkpoint must not create an unsafe condition for motorists or officers. To minimize the risk of danger to drivers, passengers, and police, the law enforcement personnel must be clearly identifiable as officers. They must use clearly marked official vehicles. The checkpoint must have sufficient warning signs, signals, and lighting to create a safe environment. If traffic becomes backed up because of the randomized stops, the field officers can adjust the neutral formula or temporarily suspend making stops until traffic clears.
  4. The location of the checkpoint must be reasonable. Because the governmental interest is to deter people from driving while impaired by alcohol, the supervisory law enforcement personnel who select the locations should choose sites that will be most effective in achieving that interest. In other words, sobriety checkpoints should be set up on streets that have a high number of alcohol-related arrests or accidents. 
  5. A checkpoint must balance intrusiveness and effectiveness in terms of the time of day that the officers operate the checkpoint and how many hours the checkpoint will be operational. Safety is also an issue. A DUI sobriety checkpoint is more likely to be effective if it operates during the hours when people are more likely to drive while impaired by alcohol, for example, late at night and in the very early morning hours. Operating a checkpoint doing during those hours, however, could be more hazardous to motorists and officers.
  6. Motorists need to be able to tell at a glance that the DUI roadblock Is official and authorized and is not operated by rogues waylaying unsuspecting motorists. The general public is wary of criminals who impersonate police officers. The roadblock should incorporate flashing lights, warning signs, and adequate lighting. The fact that it is a sobriety checkpoint should be highly visible. Uniformed officers and marked police vehicles must be present. The government agency must provide advance warning of a DUI checkpoint to minimize intrusiveness to motorists and to reassure them that the roadblock is legitimate.
  7. Supervisory law enforcement personnel must promulgate detailed guidelines on the length and nature of the detention of the random drivers who get stopped in DUI sobriety checkpoints. The stops must be as brief as possible for the officer to ask the driver one or two questions and look for signs of intoxication. If the driver does not show symptoms of being impaired by alcohol, the driver should not be delayed any further from driving on down the road. When an officer observes signs of alcohol use, the officer can direct the driver to a separate area of the checkpoint for field sobriety tests. In the separate area, those officers would have to have probable cause to conduct further investigation. The incident would no longer be an administrative inspection, but rather, the constitutional protections around traffic stops and arrests would apply to the situation.
  8. As mentioned earlier, the government agency must provide advance publicity. A DUI sobriety checkpoint without sufficient advanced publicity could be considered arbitrary and capricious and violate the constitutional rights of motorists. The general public should get informed that law enforcement will be conducting sobriety checkpoints at specific locations, dates, and times. This publicity would serve the governmental interest of deterring drunk drivers from using those streets. The ultimate goal of the warning is that people would do their driving at home, take a taxicab if they have had too much to drink, or choose not to drink to the point of impairment from alcohol before driving.

When police departments set up DUI sobriety checkpoints that violate one or more of these eight guidelines, a person arrested at such a stop might have grounds to ask the judge to dismiss the criminal charges. The enforcement of traffic law must comply with state and federal constitutional protections. Police officers must minimize intrusiveness on the lives of the general public.

Signs of Intoxication

Officers working at sobriety checkpoints in California are allowed to ask one or two brief questions of the people they briefly detain. The purpose of asking the questions is to give the police officer the opportunity to look for symptoms of alcohol impairment of the driver, including:

  • Fumbling when trying to locate one’s driver’s license to show the officer
  • Bloodshot or glassy eyes 
  • Slurred speech when talking to the officer
  • Smelling alcohol on the breath of the driver or in the vehicle

The police officer is not limited to these examples of intoxication symptoms. The officer can direct the driver to another area of the checkpoint for additional investigation as long as objective facts support probable cause or reasonable suspicion that the driver is impaired by alcohol.

What Happens if a Driver Does Not Cooperate with the Officer at a DUI Checkpoint

The consequences of refusing to comply with the instructions from a law enforcement officer at a DUI sobriety checkpoint depend on the point at which the driver does not cooperate. California law requires everyone who operates a motor vehicle on public streets to cooperate with DUI sobriety checkpoints. 

You will likely be charged with violating the traffic laws if you do not follow the directives of uniformed law enforcement at a legal California sobriety checkpoint. 

Because the checkpoint is an administrative inspection, not a regular traffic stop, taking a field sobriety test, breathalyzer, or other tests before getting arrested is optional. If you refuse, however, the officer will likely arrest you for DUI, at which point refusing a breathalyzer or similar test will get your license suspended automatically for one year, in addition to other consequences.

If you or someone you know is facing a DUI, a California DUI attorney can help to protect your legal rights and aggressively pursue the best possible outcome in your situation.

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