Sobriety checkpoints or “DUI roadblocks” are increasingly popular with law enforcement because they make it possible to catch a large number of drunk drivers in one night. These checkpoints also have a delicate legal status, because they are an exception to the normal rules police must follow. Normally, police must have probable cause to pull you over—they cannot do it at random. But DUI checkpoints allow them to randomly stop everyone passing through.
In order to be allowed to do this, police have to follow extremely detailed rules. Any breach of protocol means that they are breaking both the law and your constitutional rights. This is why a lawyer can often defend your case if you were arrested at a checkpoint.
If you were arrested for DUI at a checkpoint, you need to investigate whether all rules were followed. If they were not, you may be able to get your entire case thrown out.
Why are DUI checkpoints legal?
DUI checkpoints are encouraged because they are believed to act as a deterrent to drunk driving. The California Supreme Court has found them constitutional because they are considered “administrative” procedures. Just like airport security can search your bags without a warrant, police at roadblocks can check for signs of intoxication without probable cause.
That does not mean that checkpoints have never been challenged, however. In one landmark case, Ingersoll v. Palmer, the California Supreme Court ruled that checkpoints are only constitutional if they follow specific guidelines. Some of these guidelines include:
- A supervising officer must be present to make all constitutional decisions
- There must be an unbiased set of criteria for stopping motorists
- Drivers should not be detained any longer than necessary
In total, the Ingersoll decision put down a set of eight rules, which have developed into a large number of regulations used at most DUI checkpoints to keep them legal.
What rules do DUI checkpoints have to follow in California?
The most important rules of a DUI checkpoint include:
- It must be advertised in advance. DUI checkpoints cannot be put up without warning as a surprise. They must be advertised in advance, and are typically noted on local news.
- It must be clearly marked for approaching motorists. This is an important rule from the perspective of DUI defense. If the checkpoint is not clearly marked, or not until you are already in the “chute” and ready to be stopped, then it is illegal. It is not enough to simply put out road cones—signs must indicate the official nature of the checkpoint.
- There must be a way for motorists to turn off and avoid the checkpoint. The purpose of signage is to give motorists a chance to leave or bypass the checkpoint rather than going through it. This means that there must be either a way to turn off the road, or turn around. If officers do not leave this kind of “escape route” it is both a safety issue and a constitutional issue.
- There must be a supervising officer overseeing it. Rank and file officers cannot conduct a checkpoint on their own. There needs to be a supervising officer present who is personally making all the decisions related to constitutionality. That means that one person is personally responsible for the placement of signs, the way motorists are stopped, etc.
- The criteria for stopping vehicles must be neutral. This is another important point for DUI defense. Police either have to stop everyone who passes through or they need a neutral criteria for choosing who to stop. For example, if they stop every third car, that is random and therefore neutral. If there is evidence that they stopped you because of your ethnicity, the condition of your car, or other biased factors, your arrest was potentially illegal.
- Adequate safety precautions must be in place. Checkpoints are a safety issue because people are being taken out of their cars and asked to do field sobriety tests (FSTs) next to a large stream of impatient drivers. All parts of the roadblock, from the escape route to the FST area, must be designed with safety in mind.
- The timing, duration and location of the roadblock must all be reasonable. A roadblock that happens during rush hour is unreasonable, because it stops a huge number of people and causes massive traffic delays. Similarly, a roadblock located on a bend or in a low-visibility area might be unreasonable.
- Drivers shouldn’t be detained any longer than necessary. In general, drivers should only be stopped long enough to ask for their license and check for visible signs of intoxication. This can easily be done in 30 seconds or less. If drivers are being detained longer without signs of intoxication, the road block may be illegal.
Am I allowed to avoid a DUI checkpoint?
Yes. If you approach a DUI checkpoint, you should carefully and lawfully put on your turn signal and use the escape route or turnaround. Simply leave and find another route. As long as you do this without breaking traffic laws or causing a hazard, you are obeying the law. It is your right to bypass a checkpoint.
Unfortunately, many people don’t realize this, or don’t realize what the checkpoint is until the escape route is behind them. This is why we urge you to fight your DUI arrest. DUI checkpoints are on shaky ground and are often open to challenge in court.
What are the most common defenses against a DUI checkpoint arrest?
The most common defenses include:
- Checkpoint or escape route was not clearly marked
- Officers were not neutral in who they stopped
- Field sobriety tests were not conducted properly
- Mouth alcohol or GERD affected your breath test
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