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DUI Checkpoints in California: Know Your Rights

DUI checkpoints are used in many states throughout the country, including California. The California Office of Traffic Safety recently issued a grant to The Hanford Police Department aimed at reducing deaths and injuries connected to drunk driving. According to a report in The Fresno Bee, the grant included money to help cover the cost of driving under the influence (DUI) checkpoints. In California, the Highway Patrol and local law enforcement agencies establish and operate DUI checkpoints.

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution generally prohibits a law enforcement officer from stopping a driver without some specific evidence that the driver is violating the law. However, both the United States Supreme Court and California Supreme Court have upheld the legality of brief detentions of drivers at checkpoints to determine if the driver is driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.

Reasons behind checkpoints: Are they productive?

Checkpoints are common in California. The Governors’ Highway Safety Association states that California conducts over 2,500 checkpoints every year. Proponents of DUI checkpoints argue DUI checkpoints deter drunk driving and result in safer roadways by removing dangerous drivers before they cause an accident.

In fact, checkpoints are less effective than other law enforcement tools. Research has found that “saturation patrols,” which use officers on patrol to focus specifically on signs of drunk driving, are more effective than checkpoints. The American Automobile Association’s (AAA) DUI Justice Link states that these patrols are more likely to remove the most dangerous drivers from the road since these drivers can, and do, avoid checkpoints.

Legality of checkpoints: Are they a violation of constitutional rights?

In 1990, a divided United States Supreme Court in Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990) ruled that detaining all drivers at a DUI checkpoint did not violate the Fourth Amendment if the officers only briefly stopped each driver – for only 25 seconds in that case – and conducted the checkpoint according previously established guidelines. The California Supreme Court in People v. Banks, 6 Cal.4th 926 (1993) similarly upheld the legality of sobriety checkpoints, and specifically found that law enforcement agencies need not publicize in advance the placement of such a checkpoint. However, it is important to note that ten years after Sitz, the United States Supreme Court held in City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000) that the Fourth Amendment prohibited similar car checkpoints for the purpose of preventing drug crimes.

California checkpoints: Defenses are available if charged with a DUI crime.

Even though the sobriety checkpoints may be legal in the abstract, it is clear under the decisions of both the California and United States Supreme Courts that any particular checkpoint must be operated in a reasonable manner and accordance to neutral guidelines. If not, any evidence gathered during the stop may be suppressed and not admissible in court. This could lead to a reduction or even dismissal of charges. Further, if officers extend the brief detention allowed under those court decisions, the prosecutor will have to show good cause for any further police investigation and/or search of the vehicle.

If you have been charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs and feel your rights were violated during a stop at a sobriety checkpoint, defenses may be available. Contact an experienced attorney knowledgeable in the defense of individuals charged with driving under the influence and familiar with the constitutional limitations on sobriety checkpoints.