It is no secret that one of the most aggressively investigated and charged crimes in Nevada is Driving Under the Influence, also known as “DUI.” One of the more commonly used techniques to identify and arrest alleged drunk drivers is the “DUI checkpoint.”
When the topic of DUI arrests and DUI checkpoints is brought up to me in conversation, one of the more common questions I am asked is “wait a second…how are DUI checkpoints legal?” And, “are these DUI check points even constitutional?”
While there are lots of variables and the individual facts of each case are unique, in most situations, if a member of law enforcement desires to stop a vehicle driving on a roadway, that law enforcement officer needs to have “probable cause” … or a belief that it is likely that a crime has been committed and that the driver of that vehicle committed that crime. The most common example is when a police officer conducts a traffic stop and pulls someone over for the commission of a moving violation, or “traffic offense” in the officer’s presence. This gives the officer “probable cause” to stop the driver.
In the case if a DUI checkpoint however, the situation is different. While law enforcement does stop drivers at checkpoints, this method of stopping drivers does not require probable cause as does the typical traffic stop.
In the well-established United States Supreme Court case of Michigan State Police v. Sitz. This case involved the Supreme Court’s answer to the question of whether, put most simply, is it allowable for police to stop and question drivers without the necessary probable cause, or as more commonly referred, without a reasonable suspicion that the driver is actually engaged in criminal behavior? After analyzing, the SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) held that, while it is clear that randomly placed checkpoints do in fact violate the 4th Amendment rights of an individual against unreasonable search and seizure, the overriding public and governmental interest in preventing impaired driving outweighs what they interpret as the relatively minor infringement on an individual’s right’s (the right not to be pulled over by police without probable cause). In so finding, the Court said, “[T]he balance of the State’s interest in preventing drunken driving, the extent to which this system can reasonably be said to advance that interest, and the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists who are briefly stopped, weighs in favor of the state program. We therefore hold that it is consistent with the Fourth Amendment.”
This case involved an appeal from a case in which several citizens from the state of Michigan filed suit for declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging that sobriety checkpoints initiated by law enforcement were an unconstitutional violation of their 4th Amendment rights, because they involved unreasonable searches and seizures. In litigation, the trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs (the people bringing suit) and later, the Michigan Court of Appeals agreed. When the State of Michigan appealed, the Michigan Supreme Court declined to intervene. Thereafter, the Department of Police in the State of Michigan appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The United States Supreme Court, in a much debated 5 to 4 decision, Justice Rehnquist authored the majority decision. The Court acknowledged that a stop of a vehicle at a DUI checkpoint is a “seizure” as defined by the 4th Amendment. The question the Court analyzed however was whether such a stop was constitutionally reasonable?
The majority of the United States Supreme Court justices decided that, when balancing all interests, including the interest of the State in preventing accidents caused by drunk drivers, the relative efficacy of sobriety checkpoints in achieving that goal, contrasted with the amount of intrusion on one’s privacy caused by the checkpoints, that the intrusion into a citizens privacy in being stopped at a sobriety checkpoint was effectively trumped by the governments interest in preventing harm from drunk drivers.
In other words, the clear precedent of the Supreme Court of the United States is that DUI checkpoints are a constitutionally lawful method of stopping drivers and investigating DUI related arrests. If you, or someone you know, has been arrested for a DUI and needs to know how best to defense these serious charges, schedule an appointment to discuss your situation with Las Vegas DUI defense attorney Joshua Tomsheck today.