The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that DUI sobriety checkpoints are constitutional, despite challengers who claimed the stops violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. In what many attorneys refer to as the Fourth Amendment’s “DUI exception,” law enforcement agencies may set up checkpoints and stop vehicles to ensure the driver is not intoxicated, even without any specific reason to believe that a driver may be under the influence of alcohol. Still, there are limits on how DUI checkpoints may be conducted, and not every checkpoint is legal.
Constitutional limitations on DUI stops
Typically, police officers may conduct a traffic stop only when they have a reasonable suspicion that a driver has broken the law in some way, such as by driving while intoxicated or violating a traffic law. At a DUI checkpoint, however, drivers are stopped regardless of whether they are suspected of breaking the law.
In Michigan v. Sitz, a 1990 challenge to the constitutionality of DUI checkpoints, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the intrusion on drivers’ individual rights at a DUI checkpoint is outweighed by the government’s interest in saving lives by keeping drunk drivers off the road. However, the Court clarified that police must stop cars in a random sequence and cannot request a breath test from a driver unless they have a reasonable suspicion the driver is intoxicated.
Moreover, law enforcement agencies must submit specific plans for a DUI checkpoint for judicial approval to ensure it complies with legal standards. The checkpoint must also be publicized ahead of time, and road signs must tell drivers of the upcoming stop to give them an opportunity to turn around without consequence. In addition, police must declare in advance the method they will use when selecting which vehicles to stop — for instance every other vehicle, every third vehicle, or any other sequence they may choose.
Illegal checkpoints may result in dismissed charges
If police do not adhere to the approved plan, arrests made as a result of the checkpoint may be invalidated and the criminal charges dismissed. A case involving a December 2011 checkpoint conducted by Pasco County Sheriff’s deputies, Florida Highway Patrol Troopers and Tarpon Springs Police officers illustrates this principle well. In that case, law enforcement had obtained approval to stop every third vehicle for the standard DUI check. However, police video showed the officers stopping three or four cars at a time.
When the state attorney’s office was told the checkpoint’s operational plan was not followed, the prosecutor had 10 officers who worked the checkpoint sign affidavits attesting that things went as planned that night. Fortunately, a defense attorney for a driver arrested for DUI that night would not back down and called for his client’s case to be dismissed because of the checkpoint violation. Eventually, the video footage was admitted to evidence and the officers acknowledged the error.
Ultimately, the charges resulting from the illegal checkpoint were dismissed. However, this case illustrates that law enforcement officers do make mistakes, sometimes with very serious potential consequences for those involved. This makes it even more crucial for people charged with DUI to have vigorous legal representation. If you or a loved one has been arrested for DUI, contact an experienced DUI defense attorney to discuss your situation and your options.