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Dealing With the Legalities of DUI Checkpoints

Sobriety checkpoints are generally legal in California. There’s no doubt that they make the roads safer by weeding out inebriated drivers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these traffic stops have the potential to prevent nearly one out of 10 DUI-related deaths. But police still must meet certain standards and conditions in order for checkpoints to pass constitutional muster. A skilled DUI lawyer can make sure that police followed the required procedures in your case.

At a DUI checkpoint, police cordon off a section of roadway where drivers are stopped and briefly interviewed. Officers may stop every vehicle passing the location or randomize the selection, such as four out of every 10 vehicles. Drivers suspected of being impaired are then subjected to sobriety tests.

At first blush, checkpoints seem inconsistent with U.S. and California constitutional requirements that police must have reasonable suspicion to stop and search a vehicle. But in Ingersoll v. Palmer (1987), the California Supreme Court, recognizing the public safety value of sobriety checkpoints, approved their use so long as they are minimally intrusive. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court came to a similar conclusion in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, ruling that the dangers from drunk driving outweigh the “degree of intrusion” of a sobriety checkpoint. The Court left it to the states to define what degree of intrusion acceptable and what other standards should apply.

In California, the Ingersoll court laid down these conditions:

  • Supervising officers must make all operational decisions.
  • The criteria for stopping motorists must be neutral.
  • The sobriety checkpoint must be reasonably located.
  • Adequate safety precautions must be taken.
  • The checkpoint time and duration should reflect good judgment.
  • The checkpoint must clearly show its official nature.
  • Drivers should be detained a minimal amount of time.
  • DUI roadblocks should be publicly advertised in advance.

There is considerable wiggle room in these standards. For one thing, what is a minimal amount of time for a stop is open to question, based on such facts as traffic congestion, weather conditions and the cooperativeness of the driver. For another, advance public advertisement is only recommended. Although checkpoints are usually publicized on law enforcement websites, local newspapers and local news stations, police need not do so. In People v. Banks (1993), the California Supreme Court affirmed a DUI conviction based on evidence obtained at a sobriety checkpoint, finding that the U.S. Supreme Court in Sitz had not made advance publicity a requirement.

Although it is legal to turn away from a DUI checkpoint before you enter the inspection area, you can’t drive through it without stopping as the driver did in Banks. Confronted with highway flares, flashing arrows and a sign reading “Sobriety Checkpoint Ahead,” she claimed she thought someone was making a movie. Also, if you make an illegal U-turn in order to avoid a checkpoint, you can bet you’ll be pulled over.

Despite the general legality and common use of sobriety checkpoints in California, you still have rights if you are stopped, and an experienced DUI defense lawyer can make sure those rights are protected.

To learn more about how Amber Gordon can help you with DUI defense in California, call us at 310-773-3980 or contact us online to arrange a free consultation at our Los Angeles office.

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