When a driver is swerving, speeding, and driving erratically, a police officer has the lawful right to pull that person over and assess their sobriety. But what about pulling people over who aren’t driving erratically?
DUI checkpoints are police enforced roadblocks that check the sobriety of all drivers passing through a given area.
Are these checkpoints legal? What does a checkpoint stop entail for drivers? Can you refuse to go through a checkpoint?
Below, we go over the answers to these questions and more.
What Are DUI Checkpoints?
DUI checkpoints are also known as DUI roadblocks or sobriety checkpoints. They are predetermined locations where police can stop every motorist passing through and check for signs of alcohol or drug use. DUI stands for Driving Under the Influence, and these roadblocks mean to prevent DUIs on public roadways.
Are DUI Checkpoints Legal?
The legality of DUI checkpoints is a hotly disputed issue. Because these checkpoints often stop drivers who have done nothing wrong, many people argue that the checkpoints are illegal. Overall, each state can determine whether they will legally allow these checkpoints or not.
The key debate surrounding the legality of DUI checkpoints has to do with whether they represent a “reasonable search and seizure” as “search and seizure” is defined by the Fourth Amendment. Let’s break this down:
Generally speaking, it is illegal for police officers to stop a car unless there is a specific reason they are doing so. Specifically, an officer needs to have “reasonable suspicion” that a law has been broken by the driver. For example, a police officer can stop you if you are speeding, if you ran a red light, if you have a broken taillight, or if you’ve neglected to use your turn signal. These laws vary by state.
DUI checkpoints don’t fall into any of these categories as police are not pulling cars over for any specific reason other than to check if anyone is driving while intoxicated. They are blocking the roadway and stopping every car without having any reasonable suspicion for individual drivers.
For many — for example, the government of Texas — this means that DUI checkpoints are, in fact, illegal. States like Texas cite violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states:
"the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
In other words, many individuals and state governments (like Texas) interpret the Fourth Amendment to only allow searches and seizures that are reasonable, and they believe checkpoints to be an unreasonable. It’s why in Texas, DUI checkpoints are prohibited.
Still, other state governments have deemed DUI checkpoints a legitimate way to keep the roads and drivers safe, so there are many states where it is legal for police to station themselves somewhere on the road and begin randomly checking drivers for intoxication.
The U.S. Supreme Court has also weighed in on DUI checkpoints, stating that they do not violate the Fourth Amendment. Their essential conclusion is that keeping intoxicated and impaired drivers off the road is more important than the slight intrusion of being stopped as a motorist.
Does My State Have DUI Checkpoints?
As noted above, each state in the United States (as well as the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands) can decide on their own whether they will legally allow DUI checkpoints.
DUI checkpoints today are conducted in only 37 states and the District of Columbia. States where it is legal to conduct DUI checkpoints include Florida, California, and New York. Texas currently prohibits sobriety checkpoints because of the way in which their state government has interpreted the Constitution.
If You’re Headed for a DUI Checkpoint, Do You Have to Go Through?
Today, more than ever before, it is dangerous to drive after consuming any amount of alcohol. This is why you may wonder whether you have to go through a checkpoint — whether you’re under the influence or not.
To be sure, driving after drinking may not actually be dangerous because of your actual level of intoxication. Rather, the blood alcohol concentration limit established by the government has risen to a point where it is possible to receive a DUI charge even if you have had only one drink and do not, by any means, consider yourself “drunk.” Again, these limits and laws vary by state.
For this reason, you might consider avoiding a checkpoint. Is this legal? Yes — with some caveats.
Drivers are not obligated to pass through a DUI roadblock if they see one up ahead on the road or hear about one that is located on their prospective route. If you can avoid a checkpoint without breaking any traffic laws, you are perfectly free to do so.
However, keep in mind that you cannot swerve off the road, make illegal U-turns, drive the wrong way on a one-way street, or break any other traffic laws in order to avoid a checkpoint. In fact, doing any of these things would be exceedingly foolish as it may draw attention to you and incite a police officer to pull you over with legitimate reason.
Also remember that if you avoid a checkpoint and it is visible to police officers, you may be under additional scrutiny as you continue driving — even if you don’t break any laws at the moment you turn around. That is because if you swerve, speed, fail to stop at a red light, straddle the center light, drive too slowly, or show any other signs of erratic or suspicious driving as you continue down the road, an officer may have legitimate reason to pull you over.
Do You Have to Roll Your Window Down for Police?
If your state is one in which DUI checkpoints are legal, you must comply with law enforcement when you arrive at a DUI roadblock. If you do not change your route and do end up face-to-face with an officer at a checkpoint, it is recommended that you roll down your window and politely comply with their questions and requests.
Keep in mind, however, that if the officer has no legitimate reason to assume you have been driving under the influence and they attempt to search your vehicle anyway, this may be a violation of your rights. At a DUI checkpoint, you have the right to avoid incriminating yourself, and you can politely answer the questions the officer asks you in any way you choose.
A DUI checkpoint refusal may result in serious penalties and is not advised. If, however, you do refuse to abide by the questioning officer’s requests — or if you are unavoidably charged with a DUI — it is advised that you seek adequate legal counsel immediately.