Sobriety Checkpoints: Laws and Locations

Sobriety Checkpoints photo DUI sobriety checkpoints are a common tool used to apprehend drunk drivers in Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside, San Diego and throughout California. Law enforcement agencies modeled this approach on the success of roadside safety checks and license/registration inspections. In this process the police agency will set up a sobriety checkpoint on a highway and if the selected driver's speech sounds slurred or his breath smells of alcohol, he will be asked to leave the car and perform a field sobriety tests at the scene.

In 1990, the United States Supreme Court reversed a state supreme court decision that declared DUI sobriety checkpoints unconstitutional. In Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990), the Court held that the checkpoint operation in question did not violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Court's 6-3 decision authored by Chief Justice Rehnquest was not an unexpected result. The ruling recognized that sobriety checkpoints do constitute a "seizure" within the bounds of the Fourth Amendment, but the Chief Justice reasoned that the intrusion on individual liberties must be weighed against the need and effectiveness of the roadblock. In the end, the interests in reducing alcohol-related fatalities outweighed the intrusion on human privacy rights and sobriety checkpoints were deemed constitutionally acceptable.

Confronted with a DUI case involving a roadblock/checkpoint, DUI lawyers must consider the adequacy of the procedures employed: Was the sobriety checkpoint conducted in a constitutionally permissible manner? Even Chief Justice Rehnquist implicitly acknowledged that there must exist "guidelines" concerning such matters as location, publicity, and roadblock operation. Note that in Sitz the roadblock was set up only after a "Sobriety Checkpoint Advisory Committee" had been appointed to establish guidelines; this committee consisted of representatives of the state police, local police, prosecutors, and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

But what are the "guidelines"? Rehnquist's opinion in Sitz leaves the question of minimal adequacy of such standards unanswered, presumably to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Counsel may find some guidance in the decisions of sister states. In one of the most influential of these pre-Sitz cases, the California Supreme Court set forth what it felt to be the procedural safe-guards required for a DUI sobriety checkpoint to comply with the Constitution. Ingersoll v. Palmer, 743 P.2d 1299 (Cal. 1987).

For information on where DUI sobriety checkpoints are being scheduled near you, review the following resources:

The simple fact is that checkpoints are largely wastes of police resources and taxpayer money — not to mention unjustified invasions of privacy. In fact, in the United States Supreme Court decision upholding their constitutionality, a dissenting justice pointed out the “the findings of the trial court, based on an extensive record and affirmed by the Michigan Court of Appeals, indicate that the net effect of sobriety checkpoints on traffic safety is infinitesimal and possibly negative”.

This is confirmed by the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies, which conclude that “the number of DWI arrests made by the roving patrol program was nearly three times the average number of DWI arrests made by the checkpoint programs”.

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