Are Sobriety Checkpoints Constitutional?

Sobriety checkpoints are roadblocks that law enforcement set up on roads or highways with the purpose of catching drunk drivers.

Generally, police will announce that a sobriety checkpoint will be conducted during a specific week or weekend, but will not disclose the location. A police department is typically required to give advance notice through the local media without disclosing the precise location.

How Do Sobriety Checkpoints Work?

Many jurisdictions set up checkpoints late at night, during the holidays, and on the weekends when they believe that the greatest number of impaired 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.

Every vehicle must have an equal opportunity of being randomly checked. Some jurisdictions stop cars at predetermined intervals. For example, field officers may stop every 10th driver who drives by and ask the driver to take a number of field sobriety tests, including a Breathalyzer test or a battery of mental and physical exercises to determine whether the driver is intoxicated. Other jurisdictions test every driver who passes the checkpoint with a fast Breathalyzer test.

However, not all states conduct drunk driving checkpoints. Currently, there are 11 states that 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 provides protection against search warrants unless there is probable cause. In the 11 states that prohibit drunk driving checkpoints, lawmakers and courts have determined that checkpoints violate people’s Fourth Amendment rights as a warrantless and suspicionless search without probable cause.

Also, it is also 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?” This question would force drivers to violate their Fifth Amendment constitutional right against self-incrimination.

Do Sobriety Checkpoints Violate a Driver’s Constitutional Rights?

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

For sobriety checkpoint programs to be constitutional, there must be clear guidelines that law enforcement officials carefully follow. The Supreme Court left it up to each individual state to develop these guidelines.

The California Supreme Court, for example, 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 police 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 as short as possible.

Do You Have to Comply with Sobriety Checkpoints?

If law enforcement officials ask you to stop your car at a sobriety checkpoint, or anywhere else, then you must comply. There are, however, situations where drivers may not have to comply with a field sobriety test.

However, in Connecticut and some other states, drivers must comply with the request to take a Breathalyzer test since driver’s licenses are conditioned upon driver’s cooperation with taking a Breathalyzer test when requested by law enforcement.

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. However, that does not give police the right to trample on your constitutional rights. 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. If you have questions about sobriety checkpoints in your state or community, a criminal defense attorney could provide advice about what you can and cannot do should you encounter one.

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