The Constitutionality of Sobriety Checkpoints

Sobriety checkpoints are law enforcement initiated roadblocks that are usually set up on an anonymous road or highway in a community with the purpose of catching drunk drivers.

What Are Sobriety Checkpoints?

Generally, the police will announce that a sobriety checkpoint will be conducted during a specific week or weekend, but will not disclose the location. An advanced notice by a supervisory law enforcement official is required to be announced through the local media; however, the announcement of the precise location is not.

Many jurisdictions set up checkpoints late at night, during the holidays, and on the weekends when they believe that the greatest number of drunk drivers will be on the roads (for example, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day weekends). In states that conduct sobriety checkpoints, each jurisdiction has its own way of conducting sobriety checks on drivers of motor vehicles.

But, every vehicle must be given an equal opportunity to being randomly checked. Some jurisdictions stop cars at predetermined intervals. For example, every 8th car that drives by will be stopped and the driver will be asked to take a breathalyzer test or a battery of mental and physical exercises to determine whether the driver is intoxicated. Other jurisdictions test every driver that passes the checkpoint with a fast breathalyzer test.

However, not all states conduct drunk driving checkpoints. Currently, there are eleven states which prohibit this practice and have made it illegal for the police to conduct sobriety checkpoints.

Which Constitutional Rights Are at Issue?

Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, it is “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, paper and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”. Further, the Fourth Amendment states that this right “shall not be violated and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation. . . . “

In the eleven states which have determined that drunk driving checkpoints intrude upon a person’s Fourth Amendment rights, it has been found that the checkpoints are a warrantless and suspiciousless search without probable cause.

Also, it has been argued that sobriety checkpoints create a serious risk of an infringement upon a person‘s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Therefore, some states, such as Connecticut, have found that drivers do not have to answer questions such as, “Have you been drinking?” Because forcing drivers to do so would violate their Fifth Amendment constitutional right against self-incrimination.

Do Sobriety Checkpoints Violate the Driver’s Constitutional Rights?

Despite a minority of the states which do not have drunk driving roadblocks, the United States Supreme Court has found that the state interest in reducing drunk driving outweighs the minor infringement on a driver’s constitutional rights. Therefore, the Court has found that sobriety checkpoints can be constitutional if they meet certain requirements.

In order for the checkpoints to be constitutional, there must be clear guidelines that are carefully followed by the legal authorities. Additionally, the Court has left it up to each individual state to develop these guidelines. In California, for example, the state supreme court has held that the decisions about where to set up sobriety checkpoints and about which cars to stop (i.e. every car, every sixth car, etc.) must be made by supervisors prior to officers setting up the checkpoints. The sites selected should be in areas that have a high incidence of drunk driving and the length of each stop should be minimized.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court had dissenting opinions that disagree with the ruling that sobriety checkpoints can be constitutional.

Do You Have to Comply with Sobriety Checkpoints?

If the police ask you to stop your car at a sobriety checkpoint, or anywhere else, then you must comply. Similarly, a driver might not have to comply with a field sobriety test (FST). However, in Connecticut and other states, the driver would have to comply with the request to take a breathalyzer test since, by law, driver’s licenses are conditioned upon driver’s cooperation with taking a breathalyzer test when requested by law enforcement.

Drunk driving continues to be a serious public safety problem on America’s roads and highways. Sobriety checkpoints are meant to minimize the danger of drunk driving by catching people who commit this crime and by deterring others from driving while under the influence of alcohol. Therefore, it is important to know whether these types of checkpoints are legal in your state and what your rights are if you are stopped at a sobriety checkpoint.

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