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Are DUI Checkpoints a Legal Trap?

Whether it's New Year's Eve or a random Saturday night, there are times when local police are on high alert to catch drunk drivers. These times are when people are most likely to be driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (DUI).

Police officers might set up a DUI checkpoint to stop drivers more frequently than usual. Checkpoints give them the legal authority to stop cars regardless of the driver's actions before the stop.

DUI checkpoints have sparked debate about personal rights violations. Yet, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that using sobriety checkpoints is a legal method to keep the roads safe. Learn about your rights at checkpoint-related traffic stops.

Your Right Against Unreasonable Searches

The Fourth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution protects you against unfair searches and seizures. A police search usually needs a warrant, but there are exceptions. Law enforcement doesn't need a warrant if the search or seizure is reasonable.

If there is no strong enough reason to suspect a crime or probable cause, the police can't search or take your property. Random or intrusive stops of citizens are typically unreasonable. Evidence of a crime isn't valid in a court case if police found it during an unreasonable search or seizure. This limitation helps protect citizens from rights violations.

Pulling over a motorist is a type of seizure because the driver must stop and can't leave until the officer dismisses them. The police must have a legitimate reason to stop drivers, such as seeing a traffic violation. If police randomly pull over a driver and happen to discover drunken driving, then theoretically, the evidence of their drunk driving would be invalid.

But sobriety checkpoints are not normal traffic stops.

Do DUI Checkpoints Ignore Probable Cause?

In a way, yes, but the legal explanation is more complicated. DUI checkpoints uniquely apply the Fourth Amendment.

Law enforcement officers stop every driver at a DUI checkpoint regardless of their actions. The police don't just stop drivers who they individually suspect of drunk or drugged driving. They also check sober drivers who are driving lawfully. This lack of reasonable suspicion is the key difference from a regular traffic stop.

That's why some argue that police shouldn't have enough probable cause to investigate all drivers. Stopping someone for no specific reason in other situations is an unreasonable seizure. But, the Supreme Court believes the legality depends on public interest.

Public Good Versus Constitutional Rights

When a danger threatens the public, your rights may no longer hold priority under the law. The safety and welfare of the general public can sometimes outweigh the protection of individual rights. For example, when you enter a U.S. airport, you must complete a scan of yourself and your suitcase to keep everyone else in the airport safe. You can then also enjoy the safety benefits.

DUI checkpoints are another example of this tradeoff in action. Crash fatalities due to alcohol-impaired driving are a severe danger to the public. A checkpoint would ideally prevent this danger.

The Supreme Court ruled in Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz that checkpoints pass a balance test. The public faces a lower risk of drunk driving, but some sober drivers must endure a minor intrusion. Because the court decided checkpoints' benefits are more significant than the sacrifice, DUI stops aren't an unreasonable search and seizure.

Despite this ruling, there is a common argument that giving up personal rights can be a slippery slope for government overreach. So, some states regularly use checkpoints while other state laws limit or prohibit them. Each state's constitution can set whether local law enforcement agencies use checkpoints.

Your Other Rights at a DUI Checkpoint

Your other rights at a traffic stop still apply, including:

  • The right to refuse a voluntary vehicle search
  • The right to avoid self-incrimination
  • The right to record the traffic stop on video

The officer may ask you to complete a field sobriety test, breath test, or chemical test. You have the option to refuse, but there are automatic consequences that you should consider first. In limited cases, drivers might refuse a Breathalyzer test as a defensive strategy.

If the police arrest you for drunken driving, you also have the right to legal representation and a fair trial. The outcome of a DUI case can impact your life in many ways. You probably can't fight the reason for the checkpoint, but a DUI defense attorney can help you look at other options.

Get Legal Defense After a DUI Arrest

Police departments can use evidence of drunk driving at a DUI checkpoint against you. Don't wait to consult a criminal defense attorney when your driver's license and penalties are at stake. A DUI lawyer can review your case and the evidence to help you decide what to do next.

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