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Tis The Season For DUI Checkpoints In Sonoma County. But Are They Legal?

Law enforcement has used sobriety checkpoints in California since the 1980’s. In recent years, waves of DUI/driver’s license checkpoints and DUI roadblocks have become commonplace in Sonoma County and throughout California. Beginning on December 14, law enforcement agencies throughout Sonoma County launched their annual “Avoid the 13” campaign to step up enforcement of DUI laws. Saturation patrols and DUI checkpoints will be in effect throughout the New Year’s weekend.

Some may wonder how stopping a driver without reasonable suspicion that a law was violated is constitutional. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution calls for all to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Why should a sober driver who has broken no laws be subject to police interrogation? Courts around the country have tackled this question in the past few decades. Proper checkpoints have been upheld as constitutional because when government can show they are conducted for the purpose of deterring crime, not for the purpose of enforcing criminal laws.

Limitations of DUI Checkpoints
The California Supreme Court has placed “certain limitations” on DUI checkpoints. Law enforcement’s failure to comply with the limitations could invalidate a DUI arrest. If the stop or arrest is ruled unlawful, the entire case can be dismissed. The guidelines that the courts have said law enforcement must adhere to in conducting DUI checkpoints are:

Decision making at the supervisory level: The decision to conduct a sobriety checkpoint cannot be made arbitrarily by an individual office, it has to come from a supervisory level in order to avoid arbitrary and capricious enforcement.

Limits on discretion of field officers: The officers at the checkpoint cannot have total control over who is stopped and who is not. There must be a neutral, mathematical formula to determine which cars are stopped, such as every third car or another formula related to the flow of traffic.

Maintenance of safety conditions: The checkpoint must have proper lighting and signage. In addition, the checkpoint needs to be at a time and place when and where the traffic volume does not present a safety issue. For example, a checkpoint downtown during rush hour would not be proper.

Reasonable location: The decision of where a checkpoint should be belongs to supervising personnel, not officers in the field. The chosen location should serve to achieve the government’s interest of reducing alcohol related accidents. Checkpoints should be on roads or highways with a high rate of alcohol related arrests or accidents.

Time and duration: There are no hard and fast rules about the time and duration of checkpoints, however most approved checkpoints have been operated in the late evening or early morning hours.

Indicia of official nature of roadblock: A checkpoint needs to look official so that drivers know that it is a legitimate police operation. They need to be visible with adequate warning signs, flashing lights, proper lighting, marked police vehicles and uniformed officers.

Length and nature of detention: The stop and questioning of drivers should only last long enough to determine if there are signs of intoxication. Classic symptoms that officers look for are the smell of alcohol, slurred speech, and red or watery eyes. If the officer does not observe any symptoms, the driver should be allowed to leave immediately. Checkpoints should not be used as a tool to investigate other crimes.

Advance publicity: Roadblocks and checkpoints need to have proper advance publicity so that they are a deterrent to driving under the influence and less intrusive to drivers. Courts have held that publishing the date of the checkpoint, even without pinpointing the location, serves the public by reducing surprise, fear, and inconvenience.

Can you avoid stopping at a DUI checkpoint?

Yes. A person has a right to avoid the checkpoint in he or she chooses. Road signs announcing the checkpoint should be placed far enough ahead of the checkpoint that drivers could choose to avoid it. However, if you do anything unlawful (i.e. illegal u-turn) or show signs of intoxication when avoiding the checkpoint, you can be stopped. Remember that it is illegal to traverse a flare pattern or cone pattern set up to regulate traffic.

If you have any questions regarding DUI checkpoints or DUIs in general, contact a Santa Rosa DUI lawyer for more information.

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