In most states, police set up DUI checkpoints from time to time as part of their ongoing efforts to catch drunk drivers. Here’s generally how it works: As each car pulls up and stops, the officer asks if the driver has been drinking, the driver answers “no,” and the officer sends the car on its way. If the driver says he or she has been drinking or the officer suspects the driver to be under the influence, the stop will likely last at least a bit longer. The officer might ask the driver to take breathalyzer or do some field sobriety tests. And, after this further inquiry, if the officer still believes the driver is under the influence, an arrest is likely.
But do drivers have to comply with DUI checkpoints? Is it illegal to make a U-turn before the checkpoint, refuse to roll down your window, or just keep driving? This article addresses some of the legal issues that might come up at DUI checkpoints.
Law enforcement has been using DUI checkpoints for a long time. So, naturally, lots of people have challenged the legality of these checkpoints in the courts. In order to quell debate among lower courts, the U.S. Supreme Court has addressed the constitutionality of checkpoints on several occasions.
Generally, the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits police from stopping a vehicle without a reasonable basis for suspecting illegal activity. But with DUI checkpoints, police are stopping all vehicles without having any reason to believe anyone in the car has broken the law. So how are checkpoints legal?
The Supreme Court has carved out an exception to the normal rule for certain types of vehicle checkpoints. In a nutshell, the court’s reasoning is that the government’s interest in having checkpoints sometimes outweighs the inconvenience to drivers. In determining the lawfulness of a checkpoint, courts must look to the specific facts of the situation. But in most cases, courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court) have found DUI checkpoints to be legal.
Generally, at DUI checkpoints, all drivers must stop and provide certain information to the officer manning the checkpoint. But drivers’ constitutional rights aren’t extinguished just because law enforcement sets up a checkpoint. Although laws vary by state and the facts of each case are unique, here are some of the basics of legal issues that can come up at DUI checkpoints.
In some instances, drivers can see a checkpoint far enough in advance that they have the option of changing course. As long as the driver doesn’t break any traffic laws in the process, there’s nothing per se illegal about avoiding a DUI checkpoint.
However, drivers who make a sudden U-turn or veer off onto another street immediately before a DUI checkpoint certainly run the risk of catching law enforcement’s attention. Some courts have found that evasion of a checkpoint is a factor that might support an officer’s decision to pull someone over.
At DUI checkpoints, most drivers have their window down when they approach the officer. But are you legally required to roll down your window and answer the officer’s questions? There’s a fair amount to debate as to the answer to this question.
Drivers who are stopped at a checkpoint generally are not free to ignore the officer completely. During a traffic stop, drivers are typically obligated to provide certain documentation for inspection, such as license, registration, and proof of insurance. However, many attorneys argue this obligation shouldn’t apply to checkpoints because the stop—unlike with a normal traffic stop—is without reasonable cause of illegal activity.
Some attorneys have suggested a specific method for drivers who pass through DUI checkpoints that allows compliance with the law without having to roll down your window. The method involves attaching a paper flyer to the inside of your window that explains you are exercising your right to remain silent. The driver also places a ziplock bag containing license, registration, and proof of insurance so that it’s rolled up in the window and accessible to law enforcement. In other words, the bag hangs down the outside of the rolled-up driver's side window. However, if you’re thinking of trying this method, it’s best to first check with an attorney in your area who can advise you on the legality of doing so.
Generally, police don’t have to give a Miranda advisement—“you have the right to remain silent” and so on—to drivers who are just passing through a DUI checkpoint. A Miranda warning is required only if police are conducting a “custodial interrogation” of a suspect. Courts have generally found that DUI checkpoint stops don’t qualify as custodial interrogations, so Miranda doesn’t apply.
Drivers generally aren’t required to voluntarily take an alcohol breath test or participate in field sobriety tests (FSTs). However, once police make a DUI arrest, the implied consent laws of all states require the arrested driver to take a chemical test (typically, of the breath or blood) at the officer’s request.
If you’ve been arrest for driving under the influence or have specific questions about sobriety checkpoints in your area, get in touch with a local DUI attorney. Laws vary by state and each case is unique. An experienced DUI lawyer can let you know how the law applies to your situation.