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Sobriety Checkpoints Are Constitutional

Q: What is a sobriety checkpoint?
A: 
A sobriety checkpoint, also called a D.U.I. roadblock, is a roadblock set up by law enforcement officers in order to stop every vehicle or a subset of vehicles (every third, every tenth, etc.) passing through the checkpoint for the purpose of questioning drivers about driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Multiple law enforcement agencies frequently work together at sobriety checkpoints.

Q: Where and when are sobriety checkpoints established?
A: 
Sobriety checkpoints are established at strategic locations at significant times, such as on holiday weekends or during special events. The location and time of sobriety checkpoints must be publicized in advance. 

Q: Are sobriety checkpoints constitutional?
A: 
Yes. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the validity of sobriety checkpoints in Michigan v. Sitz, even though the law generally forbids law enforcement officers from stopping drivers unless there is a suspicion that the drivers have violated the law. In the Michigan v. Sitz case, the Court found that the intrusion and inconvenience of to individuals who are stopped is outweighed by the government’s interest in curbing drunk driving.

Q: What procedures must law enforcement officers follow to make sure sobriety checkpoints are legal?
A: 
In the same year the Sitz case was decided, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published recommended procedures for D.U.I. roadblocks. For a D.U.I. checkpoint to be legal, law enforcement must follow guidelines regarding such issues as the location, operation and publicity of the checkpoint, and the extent to which a checkpoint officer has discretion to act.

Q: What happens if an officer at a sobriety checkpoint suspects a driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs?
A: 
The officer detains the driver and conducts field sobriety testing and breath testing. In order to detain and test a driver, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion that the driver is under the influence. If, after field testing, the officer has probable cause to believe the driver is under the influence, the officer may arrest the driver and charge the driver with Operating a Vehicle under the Influence (O.V.I.).

Q: What if a driver tries to avoid a sobriety checkpoint?
A:
 So long as the driver does not violate any laws, such as making a prohibited U-turn, purposely avoiding a sobriety checkpoint is not illegal and does not constitute justification for stopping the driver.

Q: What are the goals of sobriety checkpoints?
A:
 The goals behind sobriety checkpoints are to deter drunk driving, detect drunk driving, and get drunk drivers off the road.

Q: Has checkpoint effectiveness been measured?
A: 
It is impossible to measure the deterrence value. However, there have been measurements of the number of people charged with drunk driving as a result of sobriety checkpoints. According to these measurements, a small percentage of all drivers stopped at sobriety checkpoints are charged with D.U.I. (1.6 percent in the Sitz case).

11/15/2013

This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by Columbus-area attorney Shawn Dominy. 
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Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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