September 17, 2018
DUI arrests and charges are more complex than most people realize. Some cases are fairly straightforward, like when drivers are swerving erratically due to their intoxication, and the police immediately pull them over. However, other cases are more complicated, and police frequently toe the line of illegality in their quest to apprehend all drunk drivers. A potentially illegal tactic employed by police is the use of sobriety checkpoints.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits police from pulling you over, demanding that you perform a roadside sobriety test, or searching your vehicle without reasonable suspicion that you are committing a crime. Furthermore, their suspicion cannot be circumstantial. Pulling over someone driving safely away from a bar, for instance, may be legally questionable, and such practices have resulted in overturned DUI charges in the past.
So—are DUI checkpoints legal?
What Are DUI Checkpoints
DUI checkpoints (also known as sobriety checkpoints or roadblocks) involve the police stopping every single driver on a stretch of road, or according to a specific pattern (such as every fifth vehicle), to see if anyone is driving while drunk or otherwise intoxicated. Police consider this practice an unbiased and efficient way to deal with the risk of DUIs, particularly when employed in areas where the police have reason to suspect a higher than usual number of DUIs.
DUI checkpoints are frequently used on holiday nights, such as New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July, when many people are out drinking and likely to drive home. While the police’s goal, to stop as many drunk drivers as possible before they cause an accident, is admirable, it also lies in a legal gray area that continues to evolve. The legality of such checkpoints is questionable, particularly if the police fail to follow certain, mandatory protocols.
Are DUI Checkpoints Legal?
Many opponents of DUI checkpoints argue that they are illegal because they constitute a seizure (forcing you to stop your car) without probable cause of any crime (such as obvious signs of intoxication and unsafe driving). While the use of DUI checkpoints may prevent police bias in their enforcement of traffic laws, it also potentially infringes on an individual’s right to go unbothered by police if doing nothing wrong. Unfortunately for opponents of DUI checkpoints, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld their legality in 1990, and concluded that their public safety benefits (combatting drunk driving and preventing accidents) outweighed any slight infringement of rights involved in the brief traffic stop.
When DUI Checkpoints Are Not Legal
While the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the legality of DUI checkpoints under federal law, state laws vary depending on the jurisdiction. Many states follow the federal precedent, but some do not. DUI checkpoints are considered completely illegal in Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, and they are legal within prescribed limitations in other states.
Under Florida law, DUI checkpoints are legal, but police must follow a prescribed protocol when employing them. Officers must request and get approval for them, and each planned checkpoint is designed with specific rules and a limited duration. The checkpoint can only be set up when and where it was approved for, and can only last for a designated amount of time.
Furthermore, police may not arbitrarily choose which vehicles to stop; rather, all checkpoints must follow a predetermined plan for which cars to stop. While the exact pattern can vary—it may be every car, every fifth car, or something similar—the criteria cannot change during the checkpoint, and must have been approved prior to initiating the checkpoint. These restrictions are meant to ensure that police bias does not play a role in determining who is stopped.
Were You Stopped at a DUI Checkpoint?
While DUI checkpoints are generally legal in Florida, not all checkpoints comply with the law. If you have recently been stopped at a DUI checkpoint, and believe that you were unlawfully singled out, or that the checkpoint otherwise failed to comply with the law, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. A ticket or charge that resulted from an illegal checkpoint may be overturned, and having an attorney on your side can help. Contact us online or call us at (727) 269-5300 today to discuss your legal predicament and what options you may have moving forward.