Sobriety Checkpoints: Stopping Drivers Without Probable Cause

Sobriety Checkpoints Stopping Drivers Without Probable CauseMany a driver arrested on suspicion of DUI / DWI at a sobriety checkpoint asks “How could the police stop me without probable cause?” It’s a fair question, but the courts have given a certain amount of leeway to conduct sobriety checkpoints, as long as certain criteria are followed. An experienced California drunk driving attorney can determine whether police followed established protocol while conducting a sobriety checkpoint.

Roadblocks are considered seizures under the Fourth Amendment, which states that a person should be free from unreasonable searches and seizures of their person and their belongings. The key issue in Fourth Amendment issues is reasonableness. The officer must have reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred, or the seizure must be carried out under a plan containing explicit, neutral limitations on the conduct of individual officers.

California constitutional principles are based on the same considerations. The government’s interests must be weighed against the intrusiveness of the detention. In California, in order to justify an investigative stop or detention without a warrant, there must be probable cause. Probable cause means the officer must be aware of specific facts that some crime has or will take place, and the person stopped is somehow involved in that activity. Reasonableness requires that anyone in the police officer’s position would have come to the same conclusion.

However, not all searches and seizures require a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Searches conducted to pursue an administrative purpose, rather than as part of a criminal investigation to secure evidence of a crime, may be permissible under the Fourth Amendment, even without probable cause. The reasonableness of an administrative screening is determined by balancing the public interest against the intrusion on the individual. It is under this philosophy that some types of roadblocks, such as sobriety checkpoints, are legal, while other types of roadblocks are not.

DUI checkpoints have been determined to be part of a regulatory scheme in furtherance of an administrative purpose, and not traditional criminal investigative stops. The primary purpose of a sobriety roadblock is to promote public safety by keeping intoxicated drivers off of public streets and highways.

Therefore, if the appropriate guidelines have been followed, DUI checkpoints are legal. These guidelines were outlined in a landmark court case, Ingersoll vs. Palmer. Essentially, there must be a neutral or random screening process which limits the discretion of the officers in deciding who to stop. The intrusiveness on individual motorists must be limited. The detention of motorists is brief, encompassing only a few questions which allow the officer to observe objective signs of intoxication. In addition, officers will shine their flashlights into the vehicle in order to observe any alcoholic beverages. The Supreme Court has ruled that this intrusion on the individual is slight in comparison to the value to society in keeping drunk drivers off the road.

Sometimes drivers are stopped at other types of roadblocks unrelated to sobriety checkpoints, and subsequently arrested on suspicion of DUI / DWI. Some of these roadblocks have been deemed lawful, and some have not.

The Supreme Court has ruled that roadblocks whose primary purpose is to detect evidence of ordinary criminal activity are unconstitutional, and therefore illegal. One example is roadblocks devised to detect illegal drugs. Even though many drugs are illegal, there isn’t the same vehicle-related threat to life and limb that exists with drunk driving. If law enforcement agencies were allowed to detain citizens based on any of the crimes facing society, then the constitutional protections we enjoy today would disappear. Therefore, because the primary purpose of a drug roadblock is to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing, it is unconstitutional.

However, the Supreme Court has deemed roadblocks designed to seek information, where police briefly detain motorists to pass out flyers and ask if they witnessed a crime, are constitutional. Illinois v Lidster held that an Illinois roadblock did not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.

The checkpoint was deemed reasonable because it advanced a grave public interest and only minimally interfered with the liberties afforded by the Fourth Amendment. The police officers in this case were investigating a crime that resulted in a human death by stopping motorists on the same stretch of road, at the same time that the accident occurred, asking motorists briefly whether they had witnessed the crime or had any information, and passed out fliers. Because the crime they officers were investigating was motorist-related, and the stop itself was brief, it is constitutional.

Whether a suspected DUI / DWI driver was stopped at a sobriety checkpoint or at another type of roadblock unrelated to drinking and driving, a lawyer who specializes in defending drunk driving cases can determine whether the roadblock was properly conducted. If the roadblock wasn’t conducted lawfully, any evidence collected likely will be suppressed in court.

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