DUI Checkpoints…Are they Constitutional?

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A Quick Look at Sobriety Checkpoints 


You’re cruising along late Friday night, headed home after a nice dinner with some friends.  All of a sudden you notice flashing lights up ahead.  As you get closer you see police officers amongst cones and barrels, directing some approaching vehicles into a parking lot as part of a sobriety checkpoint or roadblock.  Depending on the luck of the draw, you may be directed to pull over for a quick interaction to determine if you are impaired and warrant further investigation — or, if you are lucky, drive on. In this blog the Indianapolis Criminal Defense Attorneys at Banks & Brower take a closer look at sobriety check points.
Sobriety checkpoints have been challenged on constitutional grounds in both state and federal courts all over the country.  The U.S. Supreme Court has held that brief, suspicionless seizures at highway checkpoints designed to combat impaired driving do not violate the Fourth Amendment.  In following, most states have determined that the checkpoints are permissible so long they are conducted in a constitutionally reasonable manner.  Indiana is one of those states, with our Supreme Court having approved of roadblocks which are designed and implemented using neutral criteria which safely and effectively target a serious danger involving the operation of a vehicle.
In determining whether a particular roadblock is reasonable and therefore satisfies constitutional demands, we must first consider whether it arose from a neutral plan approved by appropriate officials.  If such a plan exists and was properly approved, it will support the reasonableness of that particular checkpoint.
The objective, location, and timing of the checkpoint are to be considered as well in determining whether a checkpoint is reasonable.  In order to be reasonable, a checkpoint must take into account police officer safety, public safety, and public convenience.  It must also target the public danger of drunk driving by, for example, being located in a place with a high occurrence of impaired driving arrests or accidents.  The timing requirement is the reason many checkpoints take place in the late night or early morning hours on weekends or holidays – these are the most common times for impaired drivers to be on the road.
With respect to the execution of the roadblock by officers, there must be sufficiently explicit guidance to protect against arbitrary or inconsistent actions by officers involved with the checkpoint.  This factor was considered very important in our Supreme Court’s evaluation of the constitutionality of sobriety checkpoints, and for this reason officers should have very specific instructions on how to handle your interaction.  All other things being equal, your interaction should not differ significantly from the interaction of the next person who comes through the checkpoint.
Any seizure necessarily involves some amount of intrusion by police, and the degree of intrusion cannot be too great without jeopardizing a roadblock’s constitutionality.  While the length of detention is a factor, and durations as long as two or three minutes have been found to be acceptable, there is more than just time to this factor.  Whether or not the roadblock is avoidable is also of import.  The more avoidable a roadblock is, the less interference it has on the liberty of individual drivers.  This factor is one of the reasons the general location of a checkpoint is often announced ahead of time through local news and/or advertisements, and why approaching drivers will often see signs announcing the presence of a checkpoint ahead.  Thus, you may have the opportunity to turn and avoid a checkpoint before you reach it.
A checkpoint must be conducted in a manner which is safe for both citizens and police.  Constitutionally reasonable checkpoints will occur in well-lit areas which permit checkpoint traffic to be diverted into a parking lot or other place which will not endanger detained motorists, police, or passing traffic.
Effectiveness is also a factor in the reasonableness of a checkpoint, but numbers do not paint the entire picture.  Another reason checkpoints are often announced ahead of time is deterrence.  In theory, people who are aware of a possible checkpoint will not drink and drive or at least will not do so in the vicinity of the checkpoint.  If a checkpoint has a relatively low number of arrests, it may be the result of the deterrent effect.  But if it cannot be shown that a low number of arrests was likely due to publicity which acted to deter, the effectiveness prong may cast doubt on the reasonableness of that particular roadblock.
No single factor in the above analysis is determinative, and the interplay of the various factors can lead to unpredictable results.  While it may seem excessive to some that there are such strict demands upon those planning and executing sobriety checkpoints, the restrictions are designed to protect you, the police, and the community at large.
If you have been arrested after being stopped at a sobriety checkpoint or roadblock, it is important to contact an Indianapolis Criminal Defense Attorney who will protect your interests and be sure your constitutional rights were not violated as a result of the checkpoint.  Much is at stake after a drunk driving arrest, so the attorneys at Banks & Brower are available 24/7 at 317-870-0019 and info@banksbrower.com.