In California, arrests for driving under the influence increase over the holidays because more sobriety checkpoints (also called “DUI checkpoints” or “roadblocks”) are set up by law enforcement agencies across the state. If you’re a driver in California, you’re about to find out how the sobriety checkpoints operate and what rights you have at a sobriety checkpoint.

The U.S. Constitution is generally understood to require police officers to have “reasonable cause” to stop drivers in traffic. Given that requirement, how are sobriety checkpoints legal in California? Motorists at sobriety checkpoints may be stopped by police officers, questioned, and even breath-tested for driving under the influence. Is this legal? If so, how?

Although the U.S. Constitution protects everyone in our nation from “unreasonable” searches and seizures, DUI checkpoints are nevertheless legal – because the U.S. Supreme Court says so. The court makes a legal exception for sobriety checkpoints, provided that a checkpoint’s interference with a driver’s constitutional rights is reasonable and minimal.

DOES EVERY STATE CONDUCT SOBRIETY CHECKPOINTS?

The Supreme Court justices believe that a sobriety checkpoint, when legally conducted, does not violate a motorist’s rights. If the officers at a checkpoint violate a driver’s rights, a DUI charge linked to the violation will very likely be dismissed by the court. Sobriety checkpoints remain controversial, and a number of states – but not California – do not operate DUI checkpoints.

How are sobriety checkpoints conducted in California? If you are detained at a checkpoint, how should you deal with it? What if you are taken into custody at a checkpoint and accused of driving under the influence? What happens if you’re convicted of DUI?

The general answers to these questions are provided below, so keep reading, but since every case is different, if you are charged with driving under the influence in southern California, you’ll also need to obtain sound and specific legal advice regarding your own case from an experienced Orange County DUI defense attorney. Now, some answers.

WHAT ARE THE RULES FOR SOBRIETY CHECKPOINTS?

How are sobriety checkpoints conducted in California? The first rule is notification. The police must diligently act to notify drivers about where and when DUI checkpoints will be operating. Police may post the information on their websites and tell the newspapers and the TV and radio stations. California drivers can also find current information at roadblock.org or duiblock.com.

The rationale for notifying motorists in advance is that adequate publicity theoretically lets drivers entirely avoid checkpoints, so the drivers who pass through a checkpoint are doing so more or less voluntarily – they could have avoided it. Thus, the courts believe that checkpoints, if conducted properly, are not an imposition on the constitutional rights of motorists.

Additionally, many police departments believe that merely announcing when and where a DUI checkpoint will be conducted has a deterrent effect that reduces intoxicated driving, at least temporarily, in the general vicinity of the checkpoint. They may be right. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that sobriety checkpoints reduce the number of DUI-related traffic collisions by about twenty percent.

HOW SHOULD YOU HANDLE A STOP AT A SOBRIETY CHECKPOINT?

More checkpoints are conducted through the holidays, but any time you drive on a highway or street in California, you may encounter a sobriety checkpoint. Police officers at checkpoints will usually want to check your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and your proof of auto insurance.

At a sobriety checkpoint:

– Stay in the vehicle and roll down the window. At night, turn on your interior light.
– Put your hands on top of your steering wheel so that they’re easily seen.
– Ensure quick and easy access to your registration and insurance documents.
– Never confess or admit anything. Instead, politely say, “I prefer to exercise my right to remain silent.”

The officer may ask you questions in his or her effort to determine if you are intoxicated. Be friendly and cooperative, but don’t answer any questions. All you have to do is to present your license, registration, and/or insurance documents if requested. If a police officer has a reasonable belief that you are intoxicated – there’s an odor of liquor or cannabis, visible empty containers, or other tangible evidence, not merely a “hunch” – you may be asked to take a sobriety test.

WHAT IF YOU ARE ASKED TO TAKE A SOBRIETY TEST?

If police officers ask you to take a breathalyzer test, but you have not been placed in custody, the law does not require you to comply. However, refusal to test may put you at risk. Why? Because if you refuse, you’ll probably be arrested for DUI, and once you are under arrest, if you are told to blow into a breathalyzer, the law requires your compliance.

In the state of California, if a driver is convicted of “simple” DUI – meaning that no one was injured, no property was damaged, and no other crime was tied to the DUI charge – the penalties upon conviction are:

First offense: a four-to-six-month driver’s license suspension, up to six months in jail, fines and fees of up to $3,600, three-to-five years on probation, and three months of DUI school

Second offense: a driver’s license suspension lasting up to two years, up to a year in jail, fines and fees of up to $4,000, three-to-five years on probation, and eighteen-to-thirty months of DUI school

Third offense: a driver’s license suspension lasting up to three years, up to sixteen months in jail or state prison, fines and fees of up to $18,000, three-to-five years on probation, and eighteen-to-thirty months of DUI school

When his or her driver’s license suspension is lifted, a DUI offender must have an ignition interlock device installed in his or her personal vehicle in Los Angeles, Alameda, Sacramento, and Tulare counties – and statewide beginning in 2019.

WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO AVOID DUI TROUBLE?

You can keep track of the upcoming sobriety checkpoints in your area, but there’s an easier way to avoid DUI charges, convictions, accidents, injuries, and fatalities. Don’t drink and drive. If you intend to have drinks with friends, find an alternative to driving. Use Uber or Lyft, call a taxi or a limousine, arrange to sleep on a friend’s sofa, or designate someone you trust to do the driving.

However, in southern California, if you make a bad judgment and you are charged with DUI – or if you’re wrongly arrested and accused of DUI – legal help is here. Do not confess to the charge, and do not try to act as your own lawyer – too much is at stake. Instead, contest the charge, seek reliable and aggressive defense representation, and reach out to an experienced Orange County DUI defense attorney who will protect your rights and fight for justice on your behalf.