Are DUI Sobriety Checkpoints Legal?

What the Supreme Court has said about the legality of sobriety checkpoints aimed at catching drunk drivers.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law

Generally, police aren't allowed to stop a vehicle unless there's reason to believe a crime or traffic violation has been committed. So how is it that police can set up a sobriety checkpoint and—without any specific evidence of drunk driving or any other crime—stop every car that comes down the road?

How DUI Checkpoints Work

Generally, police set up sobriety checkpoints in areas where traffic in one direction is funneled down to a single roadway. In these situations, drivers can't easily avoid a checkpoint by turning down another road.

Police running a sobriety checkpoint will typically have a roadblock set up where one or more officers are standing next to the traffic lane on the driver's side. As each vehicle reaches the roadblock, an officer will ask a few questions and attempt to assess whether the driver has had anything to drink or might be under the influence.

The officers will allow most vehicles to pass through after only a short delay. But if an officer suspects a driver of being intoxicated, he or she will typically require the driver to pull over where another officer will conduct a more thorough DUI investigation.

If, as a result of the more thorough investigation (which might include field sobriety tests or a breathalyzer), an officer determines a driver has had too much to drink, an arrest is likely.

Why DUI Checkpoints are Generally Legal

To be legal, DUI checkpoints must be allowed under state and federal law. First, we''l explain what the U.S. Supreme Court has said about the legality of DUI (driving under the influence) checkpoints under federal law. After that, we'll quickly cover how state laws can also affect the legality of sobriety checkpoints.

The Fourth Amendment and Balancing Interests

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows only searches and seizures that are "reasonable." And when police pull over a vehicle, it's considered a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes. Typically, a vehicle stop is reasonable only if the police have a reasonable suspicion that the driver has broken the law.

But with DUI checkpoints, police stop every car on the blocked roadway—meaning police detain these drivers without having reason to believe they did anything wrong.

In spite of the general rule, the Supreme Court has found that temporary DUI checkpoint stops (without reasonable suspicion) do not violate the Fourth Amendment rights of drivers at checkpoints. Basically, the Court said the importance of keeping impaired drivers off the road generally outweighs the inconvenience and intrusion to motorists. (Michigan Dep't of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990).)

However, the Supreme Court's general approval of sobriety checkpoints doesn't mean every detention at such a checkpoint is lawful. For example, if police were to delay a driver for an inordinate amount of time or search the inside of a vehicle without evidence of impairment or wrongdoing, it's likely a court would find the stop went beyond what was reasonable. As with all searches and seizures, the legality of a DUI checkpoint detention depends on the circumstances.

DUI Roadblocks Might be Illegal Under State Law

Under the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, DUI checkpoints are generally legal. But states have their own constitutions and statutes (laws written by state legislatures). These sometimes afford individuals greater rights with regard to interactions with law enforcement.

Several states, including Iowa and Wisconsin, have statutes that prohibit sobriety checkpoints. And in a number of other states—like Oregon, Washington, and Michigan—DUI checkpoints violate the state constitution. So, for law enforcement in these states, sobriety checkpoints aren't an option.

Talk to an Attorney

If you've been arrested for driving under the influence or any other crime, get in touch with a qualified attorney. State laws vary and the circumstances of every case are different. An experienced DUI lawyer can tell you how the law applies to the facts of your case and let you know if you have any defenses that might work.

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