Legal Challenges to Sobriety Checkpoints

Legal Challenges to Sobriety CheckpointsAlthough it is well-established law that unreasonable searches and seizures are prohibited by the Fourth Amendment, courts have ruled that sobriety checkpoints are lawful if they are conducted within certain guidelines. In order to be constitutional, DUI / DWI sobriety checkpoints must follow specific protocol set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court.

The first step in fighting a sobriety checkpoint drunk driving case is to learn as much as possible about the checkpoint. An experienced DUI / DWI attorney will gather information through the pretrial discovery process designed to assess the constitutionality of the roadblock. Such information includes:

  • Which law enforcement officials were responsible for selecting the site and procedures followed at the roadblock;
  • The identity of all involved law enforcement personnel, both sworn and civilian;
  • All memoranda, diagrams, and reports used in preparing and outlining the procedures involved in the roadblock;
  • Whether a neutral formula was employed in stopping motorists, or whether officers used their own discretion;
  • The identity of each person arrested at the roadblock. This information is necessary to determine whether proper procedures were actually followed, if defense counsel opts to interview them;
  • How long each driver was stopped at the checkpoint;
  • Whether police took steps to ensure that the safety of drivers was of primary concern;
  • Where field sobriety tests were performed, and who conducted them;
  • Where chemical tests were given, and who conducted them;
  • How the location of the roadblock was determined;
  • How the timing and duration of the roadblock was determined;
  • Whether the public received advance notice of the checkpoint;
  • Whether the roadblock had an official appearance, including warning signs, lights, and uniformed personnel;
  • Whether motorists allowed the opportunity to turn away from the roadblock without being detained;

Once pretrial discovery is completed, a defense lawyer will analyze the information to find any discrepancies between the protocol set by the courts and the officers’ actual actions. If the police did not follow all constitutional safeguards, and probable cause for a stop was absent, a DUI / DWI defense attorney will move to have any evidence suppressed.

A motion to suppress will include evidence related to the stop, detainment, and arrest, including statements made by the defendant and the results of any chemical tests. Roadblock sobriety testing is considered a search under the Fourth Amendment, and chemical tests, where a breath, blood, or urine sample is taken from the driver, are firmly established to be a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. An experienced DUI / DWI defense attorney will argue that without a warrant or probable cause, the evidence should be suppressed. The prosecutor then bears the burden in proving that the search of the defendant and the seizure of the sample were the product of a lawful arrest.

If a sobriety checkpoint was not lawfully conducted, probable cause is needed to make an arrest if no warrant exists. Probable cause to arrest exists when the facts known to the officer would lead a person of ordinary care and prudence to believe that the person is guilty of a crime. The officer must articulate this belief as to why he or she ordered the motorist to stop and why the motorist was ordered to exit the vehicle.

This same standard would apply to each stage of the encounter, including the performance of the field sobriety tests, chemical testing, and the arrest itself. If no probable cause exists, and there was a warrantless search and seizure, there is a strong likelihood that the court will grant the motion to suppress, thus excluding the evidence gathered during the roadblock.

Ultimately, evidence obtained at an improperly conducted sobriety checkpoint can be challenged. The first step is to consult with a California DUI / DWI lawyer who specializes in drunk driving cases.

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