DUI Checkpoints in California

Can the police randomly stop motorists in the Golden state?

Sobriety checkpoints are legal in California (see 743 P.2d 1299 (Cal. 1987)). These checkpoints (also referred to as "mobile checkpoints" or "roadblocks") are police traffic stops that are not tied to any specific or individual suspicions. The locations chosen for checkpoints are temporary and "random." 

 To abide by the Supreme Court and California Constitution, the following standards must be met:

  • supervising officers must make all operational decisions;
  • the criteria for stopping motorists must be neutral;
  • the checkpoint must be reasonably located;
  • adequate safety precautions must be taken;
  • the checkpoint's time and duration should reflect “good judgment”;
  • the checkpoint must exhibit sufficient indicia of its official nature;
  • drivers should be detained a minimal amount of time; and
  • roadblocks should be publicly advertised in advance.

During a sobriety checkpoint, drivers are briefly detained and interviewed after which suspicious drivers are subject to sobriety tests. The goal of these checkpoints is to weed out inebriated drivers and therefore keep the roads safer. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sobriety checkpoints have the potential to prevent nearly 1 out of 10 DUI-related deaths.

Doesn't a police officer need to have probable cause before stopping someone?

Yes, the Constitution requires that a police officer have probable cause for a traffic stop. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the dangers from drunk driving outweigh the "degree of intrusion" of sobriety checkpoints and they are an exception to the search and seizure provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Subsequently the National Highway Safety Transportation Board has issued guidelines for police when administering a sobriety checkpoint. Perhaps the most important guideline is that the police must publicize the checkpoints ahead of time. Each state may also impose its own guidelines (or the states may outlaw checkpoints entirely, as 12 states have done).

Learn more about California’s DUI laws.

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