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Sobriety Checkpoints

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James W Harwood
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Sobriety checkpoints occupy a precarious area in the law.  Normally, an officer must have reasonable suspicion that you have somehow violated the law in order to stop your car.  If an officer simply pulls you over on a hunch, or because it’s a slow night, anything that officer finds as a result of the stop will be thrown out in court.  However, police officers regularly set up roadblocks, where they stop drivers to “deter” drink driving without any individualized suspicion.  Based on the California Supreme Court case of Ingersoll v. Palmer (1987) 43 Cal.3d 1321, sobriety checkpoints may be legal if they follow a strict set of guidelines. 

According to the Ingersoll Court, the following guidelines determine if a roadblock is proper:

1.       Decision making by supervisors

2.       Limited discretion by officers conducting checks

3.       Maintenance of safety

4.       Reasonableness of location

5.       Duration and time of roadblock

6.       Indicia of official nature of roadblock

7.       Length and character of detention

8.       Prior publication of the roadblock in local media

Probably the most important factor of legality is the formula used to decide who is stopped.  Generally, officers do not want to stop and talk to every driver.  This would cause horrible traffic problems.  However, they also can’t arbitrarily pick and choose whom they want to stop and speak with.  Police departments will usually use a neutral formula, such as every fifth car, or every tenth car.  The formula can be altered based on conditions such as traffic buildup, but an officer cannot change the formula to target a particular person. 

Many people may think that once they spot a roadblock they have to drive through it.  However, an officer cannot pull you over simply because you avoided driving through the checkpoint.  The officer must observe you breaking some traffic law, and avoiding a sobriety checkpoint is not in itself against the law.  Also, a judge may rule the roadblock unreasonably located if officers do not provide drivers with a legal avenue of escape. 

Of course, it does not take much for an officer to legally pull you over.  Any observed violation of the vehicle code is sufficient, no matter how trivial.  The real reason for pulling you over is irrelevant.  If you do turn to avoid a checkpoint, don’t be surprised to see a patrol car in your rear view mirror conducting the strictest test of driving skill imaginable.  It goes without saying, if you have a burned out taillight or a loud muffler, you make the officer’s job really easy. 

What is the bottom line when it comes to what to do when you come to a sobriety checkpoint?  Whether you go through or turn away, you may have to talk to the cops in either scenario.  The best thing you can do is try to remember as many details as possible.  Take mental note of where all signs and markers are located.  Count how many cars are let through before one is stopped.  Look for legal escape routes, even if you decide to drive through.  If you are taken aside for further investigation, remember everything you can about the encounter.  If you are eventually arrested, write down as many of the facts as you can remember.  These details will be invaluable in the hands of an experienced DUI attorney, who will use them to challenge any illegally obtained evidence. 

Category: General


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