In normal circumstances, the police in California may not pull over a motorist in traffic unless that officer has “probable cause” to make the stop. Without probable cause, no arrest or traffic stop can legally be made – in most cases.
However, sobriety checkpoints – or “DUI” checkpoints – are an exception to that rule. Why are DUI checkpoints legal? Don’t checkpoints violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on reasonable searches and seizures? Can a DUI defense law firm in Orange County, CA help?
What are your rights at a DUI checkpoint? What’s the best way to deal with police officers at a DUI checkpoint? And what should you do if you are charged with DUI at a checkpoint?
WHY DOES THE SUPREME COURT ALLOW DUI CHECKPOINTS?
According to the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1990 ruling in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, DUI checkpoints are allowed by the Fourth Amendment. In Sitz, the Court held that DUI checkpoints meet the Fourth Amendment’s standard for a “reasonable search and seizure.”
Why? Because, according to the Supreme Court, the government’s duty to protect the public surpasses the Fourth Amendment privacy rights of motorists, provided that police officers at a DUI checkpoint adhere to a strict set of rules and that the imposition on privacy rights is minor.
Still, DUI checkpoints remain divisive. Ten states, including Oregon and Washington, do not allow DUI checkpoints because the courts in those states have found that checkpoints violate their own state constitutions.
WHAT ARE THE RULES FOR CALIFORNIA DUI CHECKPOINTS?
However, DUI checkpoints are legal in California, and police departments in this state routinely conduct checkpoints on weekends and holidays and for large music and sports events.
How do DUI checkpoints operate? “Notification” is the first step. Police agencies must make a reasonable effort to inform drivers when and where sobriety checkpoints will be set up. Details are posted on police department websites and shared with newspapers and radio and TV stations.
Informing drivers ahead of time is one of the reasons why DUI checkpoints are legal. The publicity, at least in theory, allows motorists to avoid checkpoints entirely, so those who encounter a checkpoint could have taken another route.
Additionally, some police agencies hold that the publicity about checkpoints has its own deterrent effect and reduces impaired driving, temporarily at least, in the area adjacent to an announced DUI checkpoint.
HOW ARE DUI CHECKPOINT TIMES AND LOCATIONS SELECTED?
The locations and times of DUI checkpoints are decided by police administrators and are supposed to be based on factors such as:
- The problem of impaired driving in the vicinity is significant.
- The checkpoint must be clearly visible to oncoming motorists.
- The checkpoint location is safe for both police officers and motorists.
Police have devised several ways to conduct DUI checkpoints fairly. Theoretically, every driver who passes through a checkpoint may be stopped, but the police will typically use a system like stopping every fourth driver or stopping only motorists who have odd-numbered license plates.
CAN YOU DRIVE AWAY FROM A DUI CHECKPOINT?
If you choose to avoid a DUI checkpoint, that choice does not provide the police with probable cause for stopping you. However, you may not make an illegal driving maneuver to avoid a DUI checkpoint, and the police may choose to follow you if you turn and drive in another direction.
Even if you are stopped at a DUI checkpoint, the police still need to have a reasonable belief that you are intoxicated in order to detain you. That reasonable belief could be based on the odor of alcohol or cannabis on a motorist’s breath, slurred speech, or visible empty bottles or cans.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO AT A DUI CHECKPOINT?
Law enforcement officers at DUI checkpoints may ask for your license, registration, and proof of insurance. Here’s what you need to do if you are stopped at a DUI checkpoint:
- Remain in your vehicle. Open your window. After dark, turn on an interior light.
- Place both hands on the steering wheel where they’re clearly seen.
- Make sure that you can quickly access your insurance and registration documents.
- Answer no questions. Politely explain that you are exercising your right to remain silent.
If the officer who stops you at a DUI checkpoint believes that you may be impaired – because he or she smells alcohol or cannabis, sees empty containers, or has other evidence that you’re intoxicated – the officer may ask you to blow into a breathalyzer or to take a field sobriety test.
WHEN ARE CALIFORNIA DRIVERS REQUIRED TO TAKE A DUI TEST?
In California, if a police officer asks you to take a DUI test, you are required to comply if:
- You are under the age of 21.
- You are serving probation for a prior DUI conviction.
- You have formally been placed under arrest.
If you are 21 or older and you are not on probation for a DUI conviction, you may decline to be tested, but you should understand that if you decline to be tested, you may be arrested for DUI, and after an arrest, if you are asked to blow into a breathalyzer, the law requires you to comply.
HOW CAN YOU AVOID A DUI ARREST?
Some drivers in California pay close attention to the publicity about upcoming DUI checkpoints, but there’s a better way to stay out of legal trouble for driving under the influence. It’s the same advice that you’ve heard many times. Don’t drink and drive.
Should you plan to enjoy drinks away from home, use Lyft or Uber, call a limo or a taxi, arrange to stay overnight on a friend’s sofa, or name someone who’s trustworthy as a designated driver.
But if you make a mistake or a poor judgment call – or if you’re wrongly charged with driving under the influence in Southern California, but you’re innocent – it’s imperative to get legal help at once. You must contact a skilled DUI attorney immediately.
HOW CAN A DUI LAW FIRM IN CALIFORNIA HELP YOU?
Police officers make mistakes just like anyone else. A DUI checkpoint must be set up properly by the police and conducted according to the law and the rules established by the courts. If a DUI checkpoint is not conducted properly, any evidence gathered there may be contested in court.
DUI penalties can be harsh in this state. An experienced Orange County DUI lawyer will fight aggressively on your behalf and bring your DUI case to its best possible conclusion, but if you are charged with DUI now or in the future, it is up to you to take the first step and make the call.