DUI Checkpoints: Still Legal and Still Controversial 25 Years Later

With the holidays fast approaching, it is the time of year to celebrate. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s are usually happy times when people re-connect with family and friends.

While traveling the highways and byways to and from their celebratory activities, drivers in West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County may encounter a sobriety checkpoint staffed by the police, sheriff’s office, or Florida Highway Patrol, especially if traveling late at night or in the early-morning hours.

Cities in and around West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County have employed these “DUI checkpoints” in the past in an effort to catch drunk drivers, especially around major holidays.

If you drive into a DUI checkpoint, you should cooperate with the police. You may be able to proceed right away, but if you are detained, it should only be for a few minutes.

If you are arrested at a checkpoint — for DUI or any other charge — it is wise to contact an attorney to discuss your case. Police must follow established rules when employing checkpoints or all the evidence may be excluded. A lawyer may be able to find errors with the establishment of the checkpoint, or the conduct of law enforcement. Your attorney may be able to find other ways to poke holes in the validity of the arrest that could lead to a reduction of the charge or an outright dismissal of charges.

But don’t DUI checkpoints violate the law, especially the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prevents illegal searches and seizures?

Yes, and no.

Twenty-five years ago, in the 1990 U.S. Supreme Court case of Michigan State Police v. Sitz (496 U.S. 444), the court authorized sobriety checkpoints. “The measure of the intrusion on motorists stopped briefly at sobriety checkpoints – is slight,” wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist in a 6-3 majority opinion.

“Constitutional balance must be struck in favor of protecting the public against even the ‘minimally intrusive’ seizures involved in this case. … No one can seriously dispute the magnitude of the drunken driving problem or the States’ interest in eradicating it” because the state has a “grave and legitimate interest in curbing drunk driving,” Rehnquist wrote.

In giving its blessing to sobriety checkpoints, the majority relied on previous rulings in which it declared:

“Where a Fourth Amendment intrusion serves special governmental needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, it is necessary to balance the individual’s privacy expectations against the Government’s interests to determine whether it is impractical to require a warrant.” (See National Treasury Employees Union vs. Von Raab, 489 U. S. 656 (1989) and U.S. vs. Martinez–Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976)).

In other words, preventing drunk driving outweighed the normal “reasonableness” requirements of the U.S. Constitution for other types of detentions.

In a blistering dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens disputed some of Rehnquist’s facts (including the assertion of an increasing problem despite facts showing a declining number of deaths due to drunk driving) and wrote that the court gave unlimited discretion to law enforcement to detain drivers on any suspicion, whereas the law requires reasonable suspicion:

“This is a case that is driven by nothing more than symbolic state action — an insufficient justification for an otherwise unreasonable program of random seizures. Unfortunately, the Court is transfixed by the wrong symbol — the illusory prospect of punishing countless intoxicated motorists — when it should keep its eyes on the road plainly marked by the Constitution.”

Twenty-five years later, during the holiday season of 2015, Drivers in West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County should be aware that a checkpoint may pop up anywhere at any time, especially on nights when people are considered more likely to drink alcohol. If you are concerned about DUI checkpoints, there are several things you can do legally to avoid them:

  • Follow the media (newspapers, TV, and radio) to learn about reports of DUI checkpoints. Law enforcement agencies are required to publicize the locations and times of checkpoints, but they often give little advance warning or do so on the day of the checkpoint.
  • Contact local law enforcement agencies or go to their web sites for information about DUI checkpoints.
  • A few Internet sites are in the business of tracking DUI checkpoints, including Roadblock.org and DUIblock.com.
  • It is legal to avoid a checkpoint in the distance by turning left or right onto a cross street or even making a U-turn as long as no traffic violations occur in doing so.
  • It is legal to enter a location (such as the property of an open business) prior to coming upon a checkpoint.

Law enforcement agencies must follow strict guidelines when conducting DUI checkpoints. They must have a written plan and the officers in the field must follow it. They may not randomly select drivers to detain, although stopping every fourth of fifth driver that passes through a checkpoint has been declared legal. Any deviation from the guidelines may make the entire checkpoint unconstitutional.

Over the past 25 years, many law enforcement officers have continued to make serious mistakes in the implementation of a checkpoint or its actual execution in the field.

If you are ensnared by a DUI checkpoint, remain calm and cooperate. If you are detained too long or arrested, make careful observations about the process unfolding, because the police may make a mistake that could lead to the suppression of any evidence they recover.

Have a Happy Holiday season in 2015 and be safe out there. And if you need an attorney after a DUI checkpoint arrest, the experienced attorneys at Meltzer and Bell are ready to represent you.