DUI Checkpoints, the Fourth Amendment, and the Court Cases That Changed Them
Many people are familiar with DUI checkpoints in California: the flashing lights and signs, the cones and barricades, uniformed officers with flashlights in hand. Late at night or in the early hours of the morning, law enforcement officers screen drivers to check for possible driver impairments: if a driver is suspected of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Some who pass through those checkpoints are impaired—their hands shake as they hand over their identification and they feel their stomachs sink when they are asked to perform a field sobriety test or a breathalyzer.
Additionally, tow truck operators are often at DUI checkpoints, waiting for the Southern California drunk driver who will be escorted to jail and whose vehicle will be towed. EMTs are often waiting as well just in case someone has reached a dangerously high blood alcohol concentration. Unfortunately, this does happen and is a testament to the dangers of alcohol: due to alcohol consumption, the individual driving can barely walk. Alcohol’s influence on the brain impairs judgement, reduces inhibitions, distorts perceptions, and impairs attention and concentration.
A holiday like Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, or Labor Day can quickly become a nightmare if a person is arrested for driving under the influence at a Southern California DUI checkpoint.
The Controversial History of DUI Checkpoints in Southern California
The reach and power of California checkpoints themselves have been tempered by the law in a litany of court cases that have called into question everything from whether they violate the Fourth Amendment to if they are allowed to extend beyond traffic and highway safety to actually be utilized in curbing general criminal activity.
What exists now is a long history of cases on both coasts, and all the states in-between, that question the legality and constitutionality of DUI checkpoints. Scrutiny of DUI checkpoints has not waned thanks to intrepid defense attorneys who have debated their efficacy and helped rein in what was otherwise a complete and indiscriminate violation of motorists’ rights, whether they were law abiding or otherwise.
In this blog post, we’re going to briefly discuss these cases and how they have shaped California DUI checkpoints.
Brown v. Texas
This 1979 court case doesn’t directly pertain to DUI checkpoints, but it did help shape them.
In Brown v. Texas, the Supreme Court weighed the constitutionality of Texas Statute Section 38.02(a) of the Texas Penal Code, that authorized police officers to stop individuals and demand identification without reason or suspicion.
The background of the case stems from Mr. Brown being approached by police officers when he was walking down the street. When he refused to identify himself, as officers requested, he was arrested and charged in violation of that statute.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that the statute violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Supreme Court emphasized in its decision that in order for an officer to stop and detain an individual, they must have a reasonable suspicion that the person is engaged in criminal activity.
Although this decision does not directly pertain to DUI checkpoints, its clear and firm principles regarding Constitutionally afforded rights have been applied to DUI cases involving sobriety checks or DUI checkpoints.
Thanks to Brown v. Texas, law enforcement officials can’t indiscriminately stop or detain a motorist. Even at California DUI checkpoints, law enforcement must have reasonable suspicion or probable cause detain or stop motorists. This means that random, warrantless stops and/or detentions of individuals Southern California drivers can’t occur – drivers can’t be detained without any specific suspicion or evidence of wrongdoing.
Aspects of the legality of an California DUI arrest now hinge on whether checkpoints comply with the guidelines established in Brown v. Texas.
This case proved instrumental in shaping the constitutionality and implementation of DUI checkpoints by establishing limitation on law enforcement authority to conduct warrantless stops.
Here are some of the most influential cases regarding DUI checkpoints in the US:
Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz (1990):
In this landmark case, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of DUI checkpoints. The case involved a challenge to the Michigan State Police’s sobriety checkpoint program. The Court ruled that the state’s interest in preventing drunk driving and ensuring public safety outweighed the limited intrusion on motorists’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Ingersoll v. Palmer (1987):
The California Supreme Court decision in Ingersoll v. Palmer established guidelines for the constitutionally permissible operation of DUI checkpoints in California specifically. The court held that checkpoints must adhere to specific guidelines to minimize intrusion California drivers would have to endure and to ensure effectiveness. These guidelines included factors such as proper warning, neutral location selection, reasonable time and duration, and the use of supervisory personnel. Again, drivers can’t be detained without any specific suspicion or evidence of wrongdoing.
State v. McLaughlin (1995):
The Washington Supreme Court decision in State v. McLaughlin set forth guidelines for DUI checkpoints in Washington State. Although this decision is not legally binding precedent for California DUI checkpoints, it still provides California guidelines and advice on the issue. The court ruled that for a checkpoint to be constitutional, it must be conducted pursuant to a written policy that limits the discretion of officers in the field, minimizes intrusion on motorists, and ensures the checkpoint’s primary purpose is to detect impaired drivers.
City of Indianapolis v. Edmond (2000):
In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that checkpoints conducted with the primary purpose of general crime control, rather than highway safety, were unconstitutional. The Court held that checkpoints must be designed to serve a primary purpose of highway safety, such as preventing drunk driving, rather than simply detecting general criminal activity. To simply act for the purpose of detecting general criminal activity would be far too broad, and would impinge on individuals’ rights.
State v. Ladson (2002):
The Florida Supreme Court decision in State v. Ladson invalidated the state’s sobriety checkpoint program because it lacked proper guidelines. Akin to the decision of Washington State’s State v. McLaughlin case, although State v. Ladson is not legally binding precedent for California DUI checkpoints, it still provides California guidelines and advice on the issue. The court emphasized the importance of clear written policies and guidelines to ensure that checkpoints are conducted in a constitutional manner, safeguarding against arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.
As demonstrated in these cases, the legal landscape of DUI checkpoints is perpetually evolving thanks to court cases and legislative actions on the state and federal levels brought by experienced DUI attorneys. Cases continue to push against the legality and constitutionality of DUI checkpoints and persist in refining the powers granted to law enforcement, continually trying to curb arbitrary stops and discriminatory enforcement.
What Are California DUI Checkpoints Like?
Thanks to the legal roadmap created by decades of court cases, particularly the California Supreme Court case of Ingersoll v. Palmer, sobriety checkpoints must now function within specific parameters.
Here is an overview of how Southern California DUI Checkpoints function and when you can be detained:
Notification and location selection: Prior to the checkpoint, law enforcement agencies are required to provide advance public notice regarding the time and location of the checkpoint. This notification can be through press releases, media outlets, or signs posted near the checkpoint site. The location selection must be based on relevant factors such as DUI accident or arrest rates. This is to ensure transparency and compliance with constitutional standards.
Visible and identifiable: DUI checkpoints must be conducted in a manner that makes them readily identifiable as a law enforcement operation. Typically, they are marked with signs, cones, flashing lights, and police vehicles to ensure their visibility to motorists.
Neutral and systematic screening: The checkpoint must be conducted in a neutral and systematic manner. This means that all vehicles passing through the checkpoint should be subject to the same screening process, regardless of the occupants’ characteristics.
Minimal intrusion: The guidelines emphasize that the intrusion on motorists’ privacy must be minimal. This includes ensuring that the checkpoint stops are brief and that the law enforcement officers follow specific procedures during the screening process.
Reasonable suspicion or probable cause: Under California law, you can be detained for further investigation at a DUI checkpoint if the officers have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This can include indicators such as the odor of alcohol, slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, or other signs of impairment.
It’s important to note that while you can be detained for further investigation based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause, simply passing through a DUI checkpoint does not provide law enforcement officers with sufficient grounds to detain you. The primary purpose of the checkpoint is to screen for impaired drivers, and absent any indications of impairment or other reasonable suspicion, motorists should be allowed to continue without further delay.
When do DUI Checkpoints Usually Occur in Southern California?
DUI checkpoints in Southern California can be set up at various times throughout the year. However, they tend to be more common during certain periods, such as holidays and weekends, when there is a higher likelihood of alcohol-related incidents or impaired driving.
Some of the times when DUI checkpoints are often set up in Southern California include:
Holidays: DUI checkpoints are frequently established during major holidays associated with increased alcohol consumption, such as New Year’s Eve, Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving. These checkpoints aim to deter and identify impaired drivers during times when festivities and celebrations are more prevalent.
Weekends: Weekends, particularly Friday and Saturday nights, are times when DUI checkpoints are frequently set up. These nights tend to have higher instances of alcohol-related activities, parties, and social gatherings, making them a priority for law enforcement agencies to prevent impaired driving incidents.
Special enforcement campaigns: Law enforcement agencies may conduct DUI checkpoints as part of special enforcement campaigns focused on impaired driving prevention. These campaigns can coincide with specific periods such as “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaigns or other regional initiatives aimed at raising awareness and deterring impaired driving.
No matter where you are or the cause for celebration, it’s important to be mindful of safety and your rights when you come upon an Orange California DUI checkpoint. Remember, the current DUI checkpoint procedures—the advanced public notice, the inability for law enforcement to detain you without proper suspicion—came to fruition from court cases spanning decades. Regular people who hired experienced DUI attorneys when they saw that something was wrong with the system and saw an opportunity to at least partially fix it.
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