Drunk Driving and Fourth Amendment Issues

Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a person has the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. When police officers search someone’s car, house, or belongings without a warrant, they may be violating the individual’s 4th Amendment rights. Illegal search or seizure can occur during a traffic stop when the driver is suspected of operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Fourth Amendment Protections

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Generally, the police need a warrant to search an individual, their property, motor vehicle, or home. However, there are a number of exceptions to the warrant requirement. Some of the warrant exceptions include:

  • Consent exception
  • Plain view exception
  • Automobile exception
  • Hot pursuit exception
  • Searches incident to a lawful arrest


If a driver gives a police officer permission to search their vehicle, the police officer does not need a warrant. This is one of the most common ways law enforcement agencies avoid the need for a warrant. Drivers may worry that refusing consent will make them look guilty. The police may also make it seem like the driver does not have much of a choice. If the police searched your vehicle without consent, talk to your defense lawyer about your rights.

Plain View

Under the plain view exception, the police may not need a warrant if they can see evidence of a crime in plain view, where the police are legally present. In a drunk driving arrest, plain view may involve an open alcohol container in the vehicle or a glass pipe in the ashtray. Motor vehicles are surrounded by glass windows, which makes it simple for police to get a good look at the interior of the vehicle to find any evidence of contraband.

Automobile Exceptions

The Supreme Court has ruled that 4th Amendment protections are based, in part, on a reasonable expectation of privacy. The Supreme Court has found that drivers have a lesser expectation of privacy in a motor vehicle because it primarily serves as transportation and travels on public roads. The automobile exception allows for temporary traffic stops based on reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation or criminal activity. The police may also have the right to pat down drivers or passengers if they reasonably believe the individual may be armed and dangerous. If the vehicle is impounded, the police generally have the ability to inventory the contents of the vehicle without a search warrant, if they do so based on standardized procedures.

Search and Seizure During a Traffic Stop

The police have to have a reason for making a traffic stop. However, even a minor vehicle violation may be enough to pull the driver over to the side of the road. For DUI arrests, the officer may stop the vehicle if the driver is driving dangerously, speeding, does not have headlights on at night, has expired registration, or just about any other articulable reason.

There is no specific period of time for a traffic stop, as long as it is reasonable. Generally, traffic stops do not last more than 15 to 20 minutes. If the police do not let the driver leave after issuing a ticket or finishing the traffic stop, the driver may be unlawfully detained. The police may use the threat of waiting until a search dog arrives to get the driver to give consent to a vehicle search. Talk to a criminal defense lawyer if your rights were violated during a traffic stop.

Sobriety Checkpoints

DUI checkpoints allow the police to conduct a brief safety check without reasonable suspicion of any criminal activity. The Supreme Court has ruled that sobriety checkpoints are valid, as long as they follow certain guidelines. However, some states have passed laws preventing sobriety checkpoints and other states have found these stops to violate the state constitution.

DUI checkpoints are considered administrative inspections, and police can check a driver’s license, seatbelt use, proof of insurance, and valid registration. However, if police suspect the driver may be impaired, they can pull the vehicle out of the checkpoint line and conduct a further investigation.

Warrantless Blood Draw

In DUI or DWI cases, evidence of the driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is used to show the driver was over the legal limit or had drugs in their system. Implied consent laws allow the police to require a breath test or chemical blood sample to test the driver’s blood alcohol level. Drivers have given their consent to submit a chemical test after a drunk driving arrest. Refusing blood alcohol tests at the police station can result in penalties, including a driver’s license suspension for up to a year for a first offense.

If the police take a blood test without the driver’s consent, it may be considered a violation of the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights. To take a blood sample against the driver’s will generally requires a warrant. However, exigent circumstances may allow for a warrantless blood draw without a warrant, such as where the driver is unconscious.

Defense Strategies After Illegal Searches

If the police violate your search and seizure rights in a DUI arrest, your criminal defense lawyer may be able to exclude evidence of the crime. Any evidence gathered as part of an unlawful search may be considered the “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Your lawyer can file a motion to suppress evidence of impairment, which could include evidence of alcohol or drugs in the car, or chemical test results.

Many people just accept the fact that law enforcement officers sometimes violate the rights of individuals during traffic stops. Just because it happens does not mean you have to accept it. Talk to your attorney about what to do after a law enforcement officer violated your 4th Amendment rights during a DUI arrest. Contact a drunk driving attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.

Was this helpful?