DUI Checkpoints – How are They Legal?

A Breakdown And Basic Understanding Of DUI-Checkpoints

Driving down the highway and seeing an Ohio State Trooper standing on the side of the road with his laser gun pointed directly at me always makes my heart stop. I start to think, “Crap, was I speeding?” Because the last thing anyone needs is to be stopped by a police officer. It is a nerve-racking event that not too many people enjoy. The officer or trooper approaches your vehicle and starts to ask for your license, insurance, registration, etc. Then you sit there and wait while the officer or trooper runs your personal information. Assuming you have no warrants and your license is valid, you get a ticket or a warning.

Overall, not a pleasant experience by any account. But let’s break this down.

  1. A trooper pointed a speed detecting device at your car (laser gun);
  2. Registered your speed to be in excess of the posted speed limit;
  3. Pulled up behind your vehicle;
  4. Activated his overhead lights (informing you that he is conducting a stop);
  5. Stops you;
  6. Investigates not only the speed infraction but anything else he can find;
  7. Then assuming everything with you is good to go, you receive a speeding ticket or a warning.

So, this whole stop was based on the trooper’s Reasonable Suspicion that you were speeding. And that was his sole justification for pulling you over. Okay….that is a typical scenario in the court. But what if there is no Reasonable Suspicion? And that leads us into DUI-Checkpoints.

During a DUI-Checkpoint, a motorist enters into the checkpoint and is given instructions to stop. Once stopped and just like any other traffic stop, the officer asks for the motorist’s license, automobile insurance, and registration. It is during this time, the officer can order the motorist out of the vehicle if he smells alcohol on the motorist’s breath or believes the motorist is impaired from drug use. Well isn’t that a problem? How is the officer not violating the motorist’s Fourth Amendment right to unlawful searches and seizures? After-all, the motorist has not committed any traffic infractions! He is just driving down the road and then being stopped for no particular reason…RIGHT?!?!

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Texas did not feel the same way. The Court found a three-part balancing test to determine the reasonableness of stops and seizures under the Fourth Amendment relating to sobriety checkpoints. The Court stated, “Consideration of the constitutionality of such seizures involves:

  1. A weighing of the gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure,
  2. The degree to which the seizure advances the public interest, and
  3. The severity of the interference with individual liberty.”

This is a pretty general balancing test without much guidance. The Ohio 2nd Appellate District felt the same way and adopted a test developed by the Iowa Supreme Court in State v. Hilleshiem. The Ohio 2nd District in State v. Goines found that a vehicle may be stopped where there are all of the following:

  1. A checkpoint or roadblock location selected for its safety and visibility to oncoming motorists;
  2. Adequate advance warning signs, illuminated at night, and timely informing approaching motorists of the nature of the impending intrusion;
  3. Uniformed officers and official vehicles in sufficient quantity and visibility to show the police power of the community; and
  4. A predetermination by policy-making administrative officers of the roadblock location, time, and procedures to be employed, pursuant to carefully formulated standards and neutral criteria.

Reading the 2nd District’s test, it seems to me that this test goes to the third prong of the U.S. Supreme Court’s balancing test above. This makes sense, because the severity of the interference with individual liberty is what is truly at stake. Don’t worry though, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed this very issue in a separate case.

Eleven years after developing the three-prong balancing test in Brown v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court was at it again with sobriety checkpoints. In Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, the Court found that individual liberty or privacy can be broken down into objective and subjective intrusions. An objective intrusion is based on “the duration of the seizure and the intensity of the investigation.” A subjective intrusion is based on “the fear and surprise engendered in law-abiding motorists by the nature of the stop.”

Based on those two definitions of objective and subjective intrusion, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a state’s use of sobriety checkpoints does not violate the Fourth Amendment, and that the objective and subjective intrusion of privacy is minimal. The Court went on to say that the fear and surprise of motorists – subjective intrusion – are further lessened because “at traffic checkpoints the motorists can see that other vehicles are being stopped and can see visible signs of the officers’ authority.”

Now, the other two factors to be weighed in the balance test also need to come into play, but I do not believe they are difficult for the state to show. So, there is the gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure and the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest. Okay, I can sum those two up real quick. A State Trooper Captain gets on the News and states, “We are cracking down on impaired driving on Wilmington Avenue from the corners of Patterson to Dorothy Lane. We have statistics that show on this stretch of Wilmington Avenue there has been more OVI arrests in the past two months than any other stretch of roadway. In addition, we have had four accidents involving impaired drivers, one was with a fatality. In order to reduce impaired driving, the Ohio State Patrol along with the Kettering Police Department will be conducting a sobriety checkpoint from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.” BOOM! The public concern is impaired drivers lead to car accidents and the public interest is to stop and get impaired drivers off of the road through the use of sobriety checkpoints. That is good enough for most courts.

Going back to my example of breaking down a stop for speeding, I think it is clear that any stop is intrusive in nature. And that is just with one to two police officers on scene! Sobriety checkpoints have multiple police officers looking into your vehicle, asking questions, demanding to see documentation. But hey, the surprise and fear is gone, at least according to the U.S. Supreme Court, because you see fellow motorists being stopped in front of you and visible signs of police officers’ authority are comforting. Well, NOT FOR THIS GUY!

Now that there is a basic understanding of DUI-Checkpoints, next blog will readdress DUI-Checkpoints and talk about one Florida Attorney’s controversial advice for avoiding contact with police officers during a checkpoint stop.

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