DUI sobriety checkpoints are designated areas where law enforcement will block the road and systematically stop drivers in the hopes of catching people who are driving under the influence. Officers do not need "probable cause" to stop you at a DUI checkpoint.
Vehicle Code 2814.2(a) VC reads:"(a) A driver of a motor vehicle shall stop and submit to a sobriety checkpoint inspection conducted by a law enforcement agency when signs and displays are posted requiring that stop."
- Supervising officers must make all operational decisions;
- The criteria for stopping motorists must be neutral;
- The checkpoint must be reasonably located;
- Adequate safety precautions must be taken;
- The checkpoint's time and duration should reflect “good judgment”;
- The checkpoint must exhibit sufficient indicia of its official nature;
- Drivers should be detained a minimal amount of time; and
- Roadblocks should be publicly advertised in advance.1
If you are charged with California DUI after being stopped at a checkpoint that did not meet these requirements, you may be able to use this to defend against the DUI charges.
Below, our California DUI defense attorneys answer the following frequently asked questions about California DUI sobriety checkpoints:
- 1. Are California DUI checkpoints constitutional?
- 2. What can I expect at a California DUI checkpoint?
- 3. What are the rules and regulations for DUI sobriety checkpoints in California?
- 4. Can I turn around to avoid a DUI checkpoint?
- 5. Can I refuse a DUI checkpoint?
- 6. What if I am caught driving without a license at a sobriety checkpoint?
- 7. How can I find out about DUI checkpoints in advance?
If, after reading this article, you have further questions, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
DUI sobriety checkpoints have been held valid under both the United States and California constitutions.2
The California Supreme Court has held that DUI checkpoints are “administrative inspections,” like airport screenings.3 As such, they are an exception to the Fourth Amendment rule that an officer must have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to initiate a DUI investigation.
The law enforcement agency that is operating a California sobriety checkpoint will section off a portion of the road. This will usually cause vehicles to merge into one or two lanes before coming to a stop.
If you are driving, the officer will ask you to roll down the window.The officer will ask you for your license and registration.
The officer at the DUI checkpoint will also engage you in a brief discussion. This dialogue helps the officer evaluate whether you may be driving under the influence.
Specifically, the officer is looking to see whether:
- you fumble when asked for your driver's license and registration,
- you smell of alcohol,
- you have trouble answering his/her questions,
- there are any alcoholic beverages, drugs or drug paraphernalia in the vehicle, or
- you exhibit slurred speech, red, watery eyes, or any other signs of physical impairment.4
If signs of impairment are present, a typical drunk driving investigation may ensue at the sobriety checkpoint. The officer will ask you to perform California DUI field sobriety tests ("FSTs"). He or she may also ask you to take a Preliminary Alcohol Screening (“PAS”) breath test.
The officer will then arrest you if, based on your performance on the field sobriety test or PAS breath test, there is probable cause to believe that you are:
- driving under the influence of alcohol under Vehicle Code 23152(a) VC,
- driving with a BAC of .08 or greater under Vehicle Code 23152(b) VC, or
- driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) in violation of Vehicle Code 23152(e) VC.
But just because you are arrested at a DUI sobriety checkpoint does not necessarily mean that you will be convicted of the offense.
Law enforcement must follow strict rules and regulations with respect to DUI checkpoints. If they do not, any arrests that they make will be considered unlawful. And if an arrest is unlawful, the subsequent charges will most likely be dismissed--even if you were in fact driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or driving with a BAC of .08 or greater.
California DUI checkpoints are not in and of themselves unconstitutional.5 Failure of the police to follow strict procedures, however, may make a specific DUI checkpoint unconstitutional.
As San Bernardino DUI defense lawyer Michael Scafiddi6 explains:
"When I have a client who is arrested at a California DUI checkpoint, I critically examine the sobriety checkpoint itself. If any of the legal requirements that relate to these DUI traps are not satisfied, I may be able to get my client's DUI case dismissed."
In determining whether a checkpoint is constitutional, courts balance:
- the interest of the state in preventing drunk driving, against
- the “subjective intrusion” on motorists, including the potential for generating fear and surprise.7
Ingersoll v. Palmer is the landmark case relating to California DUI checkpoints. In it the California Supreme Court set forth eight “functional guidelines” to determine whether a DUI checkpoint is constitutional.8
Let's take a brief look at these one by one.
Supervising officers must make all operational decisions
Supervising officers (as opposed to field officers) must determine where, how, and when California sobriety checkpoints will operate.9 This is to “reduce the potential for arbitrary and capricious enforcement."10
The criteria for stopping motorists must be neutral
Supervising officers need to determine ahead of time which cars are to be stopped. Field officers may not make this determination.
The determination must be made using “neutral mathematical selection criteria.” Examples are stopping every third car, five consecutive cars out of every ten, etc. Stopping only certain makes or model years of car, or stopping only drivers fitting a certain age or ethnic profile, is NOT acceptable.11
The sobriety checkpoint must be reasonably located
The sobriety checkpoint must be in a location where there is a high incidence of DUI-related accidents or arrests.12
Adequate safety precautions must be taken
Supervising officers must consider safety when choosing where to set up a California DUI checkpoint.13
Safety factors include:
- traffic patterns,
- street layout, and
- making the roadblock clearly visible to approaching drivers.14
The checkpoint's time and duration should reflect “good judgment”
Supervising officers are expected to use their “good judgment” in setting the time of day and duration of a checkpoint. Effectiveness must be weighed against the intrusiveness to drivers.15
The checkpoint must clearly show its official nature
Motorists should be able to see clearly that they are approaching an official DUI stop. This helps minimize fear and surprise on the part of law-abiding drivers.16
The official nature of a sobriety roadblock can be indicated by:
- warning signs,
- flashing lights,
- marked police cars, and
- the presence of uniformed police officers.17
Drivers should be detained a minimal amount of time
Drivers should be detained at a California DUI checkpoint only long enough for the officer to question the driver briefly and to look for signs of intoxication such as:
- alcohol on the breath,
- slurred speech, and
- glassy or bloodshot eyes.18
A driver who shows no signs of impairment should be permitted to drive on without further delay.19 Any further investigation must be based on probable cause or reasonable suspicion.20
DUI roadblocks should be publicly advertised in advance
Ideally, DUI checkpoints should be advertised in advance. However, lack of advance publicity does not, by itself, make a sobriety checkpoint unconstitutional.21
Law enforcement agencies generally try to publicize DUI sobriety checkpoints about a week in advance. Notice of upcoming checkpoints can often be found in or on:
- law enforcement websites,
- local newspapers, and
- local news stations.
There is no law that says you may not intentionally avoid a DUI checkpoint by turning around or taking another route--as long as it is safe to do so.
As a practical matter, law enforcement agencies typically give drivers sufficient warning to allow them to avoid the checkpoint.22 In addition, departmental rules often prohibit officers from stopping motorists solely because they intentionally avoided the California sobriety checkpoint.
However, normal traffic rules still apply. Police officers may pull you over if, while avoiding a DUI checkpoint, you:
- commit a traffic violation,
- have a defect on your vehicle, such as a broken tail light, or
- display signs of obvious intoxication.23
Vehicle Code 2814.2(a) VC requires all drivers to stop and submit to California sobriety checkpoints.24
So once you are at a checkpoint, you may not refuse to comply with the officer's instructions. If you do, you will likely be charged with a California infraction.
The answer to this question depends on whether you:
- have a valid driver's license but just don't have it with you at the sobriety checkpoint, or
- do not have a valid driver's license when you are stopped at the DUI roadblock.
In the first case (you have a license, but you don't have it on you), you may be charged with Vehicle Code 12951 VC failure to display your driver's license. This will likely be charged as a California infraction.
And if you can later demonstrate that you did have a valid license at the time of the stop, there is a good chance the VC 12951 failure to display a driver's license charge will be dismissed.
If you do not have a license -- or if your license has been suspended or revoked -- when you hit a California sobriety checkpoint, you may be charged with Vehicle Code 12500 VC driving without a valid license or Vehicle Code 14601 VC driving on a suspended license.
However, your vehicle will not be impounded at the DUI checkpoint as long as:
- driving without a valid license is the only charge against you (i.e., you are not also arrested for DUI), and
- you (or the registered owner of the vehicle if it is someone other than you) authorizes release of the vehicle to a licensed driver by the end of the checkpoint.25
Before 2012, California law allowed officers to impound the vehicles of unlicensed drivers at California DUI checkpoints. Opponents of this practice argued that such vehicle seizures:
- unfairly targeted undocumented immigrants who at the time were not permitted to obtain driver's licenses, but who needed cars for work,
- constituted an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and
- were motivated by financial incentives.26
In response to such criticisms, the California Legislature enacted Assembly Bill 353, now codified as California Vehicle Code 2814.2. That section prohibits the immediate impoundment of a vehicle at a sobriety checkpoint if the driver's only offense is driving without a valid license.27
Law enforcement's official releases are the best way to find out about DUI checkpoints in advance. You can usually find out when and where sobriety roadblocks will be from:
- police department websites,
- local newspapers and news websites, and
- local TV news.
That said, as discussed above, advance public notice of upcoming checkpoints is not required. So not all checkpoints will be publicized through those channels.
Many people also want to know if there is a smartphone "app" that will warn them about DUI checkpoints, including those that law enforcement does not decide to publicize.
In June 2011, Apple (the maker of iPhones) and Research in Motion (the maker of Blackberries) banned the sale of apps that:
- identify DUI checkpoints not published by law enforcement agencies, or
- encourage and enable drunk driving.28
This came after four United States senators expressed concerns that such apps were “giving drunk drivers a free tool to evade checkpoints.”29
However, Google continues to make a few DUI checkpoint apps for phones that use the Google Android platform available through its app store.
In addition, the traffic data app Waze reports the location of police, including at sobriety checkpoints. But it is important to remember that Waze's data is user-generated and so may not be accurate or comprehensive.
Call us for help…
If you or a loved one has been charged with DUI following a stop at a California DUI sobriety checkpoint, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.
For more information about Nevada DUI sobriety checkpoints, please see our article on Nevada DUI sobriety checkpoints.
- Ingersoll v. Palmer (1987) 43 Cal.3d 1321.
- Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz (1990) 496 U.S. 444, 110 S.Ct. 2481 (holding that DUI sobriety checkpoints do not violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches); and, Ingersoll, endnote 1 (holding that DUI and driver's license checkpoints are not prohibited by the Unites States or California constitutions).
- Ingersoll, endnote 1, at 1331-2 (“The sobriety checkpoint presents a compelling parallel to the airport screening search. While the label "administrative search" is open to some criticism in application to either the airport search or the sobriety checkpoint stop, both, although they operate mechanically as a search or inspection for the violation of law, actually serve a primary and overriding regulatory purpose of promoting public safety. Their primary purpose is to prevent and deter conduct injurious to persons and property; they are not conventional criminal searches and seizures. The fact that sobriety checkpoint stops will lead to the detection of some individuals involved in criminal conduct does not alter the fundamental regulatory character of the screening procedure.")
- Ingersoll, endnote 1 above.
- Same. (“It is illogical to suggest that an officer who has a reasonable suspicion an individual is driving under the influence of intoxicants and thus endangering the public may take corrective action, but that a law enforcement agency having knowledge that on any given night hundreds of drivers will be under the influence of intoxicants and thus endangering the public may not.”).
- San Bernardino DUI defense lawyer Michael Scafiddi is a former DUI enforcement officer who now defends clients throughout the Inland Empire including Hemet, Palm Springs, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside and San Bernardino.
- Sitz, endnote 2 above, at 451.
- Ingersoll, endnote 1 above (California DUI checkpoints are constitutional as long as they meet “functional guidelines for minimizing the intrusiveness of the sobriety checkpoint stop.”).
- See Ingersoll, endnote 1 above, at 1341. ("The decision to establish a sobriety checkpoint, the selection of the site and the procedures for the checkpoint operation should be made and established by supervisory law enforcement personnel, and not by an officer in the field. This requirement is important to reduce the potential for arbitrary and capricious enforcement.")
- Same at 1342.
- Same at 1342. ("A related concern is that motorists [at a California DUI checkpoint] should not be subject to the unbridled discretion of the officer in the field as to who is to be stopped. Instead, a neutral formula such as every driver or every third, fifth or tenth driver should be employed.")
- Same at 1343.
- Same at 1343. ("The location of [DUI] checkpoints should be determined by policy-making officials rather than by officers in the field. The sites chosen should be those which will be most effective in achieving the governmental interest; i.e., on roads having a high incidence of alcohol related accidents and/or arrests. Safety factors must also be considered in choosing an appropriate location.")
- Same at 1326 (“The location …was selected by taking into account frequency of drunk driving arrests and accidents, and safety factors such as traffic patterns and street layout…Warning signs [including a sign announcing a sobriety checkpoint] were posted. A cone taper diverted traffic to a single northbound lane. The signs and cone taper were set up according to Caltrans regulations for signing and lane closure.”)
- Same at 1345 (“N]o hard and fast rules as to timing or duration [of a DUI sobriety checkpoint] can be laid down, but law enforcement officials will be expected to exercise good judgment in setting times and durations, with an eye to effectiveness of the operation, and with the safety of motorists a coordinate consideration.”).
- Sitz, endnote 2 above, at 453.
- Ingersoll, endnote 1 above, at 1345 (“The [California DUI] roadblock should be established with high visibility, including warning signs, flashing lights, adequate lighting, police vehicles and the presence of uniformed officers. Not only are such factors important for safety reasons, advance warning will reassure motorists that the stop is duly authorized.”).
- Same at 1346. (“Minimizing the average time each motorist is detained [at a DUI sobriety roadblock] is critical both to reducing the intrusiveness of the stop on the individual driver and to maintaining safety by avoiding traffic tie-ups. As occurred in the Burlingame and CHP checkpoints, each motorist stopped should be detained only long enough for the officer to question the driver briefly and to look for signs of intoxication, such as alcohol on the breath, slurred speech, and glassy or bloodshot eyes.”)
- Same. (“If the driver does not display signs of impairment, he or she should be permitted to drive on without further delay [at the California sobriety checkpoint].”).
- Same. (“If the officer does observe symptoms of impairment, the driver may be directed to a separate area for a roadside sobriety test. At that point, further investigation would of course be based on probable cause, and general principles of detention and arrest would apply.”)
- People v. Banks (1993) 6 Cal.4th 926, 949. (“[T]he operation of a sobriety checkpoint conducted in the absence of advance publicity, but otherwise in conformance with the guidelines we established in [Ingersoll] does not result in an unreasonable seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”)
- See, e.g., Ingersoll, endnote 1 above.
- Same at 1336, FN5.
- Vehicle Code 2814.2(a) VC -- DUI sobriety checkpoints. ("a) A driver of a motor vehicle shall stop and submit to a sobriety checkpoint inspection conducted by a law enforcement agency when signs and displays are posted requiring that stop.")
- Vehicle Code 2814.2(b)-(c) VC -- Unlicensed drivers stopped at DUI checkpoints. ("(b) Notwithstanding Section 14602.6 or 14607.6, a peace officer or any other authorized person shall not cause the impoundment of a vehicle at a sobriety checkpoint if the driver's only offense is a violation of Section 12500 [driving without a valid license]. (c) During the conduct of a sobriety checkpoint, if the law enforcement officer encounters a driver who is in violation of Section 12500, the law enforcement officer shall make a reasonable attempt to identify the registered owner of the vehicle. If the registered owner is present, or the officer is able to identify the registered owner and obtain the registered owner's authorization to release the motor vehicle to a licensed driver by the end of the checkpoint, the vehicle shall be released to either the registered owner of the vehicle if he or she is a licensed driver or to the licensed driver authorized by the registered owner of the vehicle.")
- Miranda v. City of Cornelius (2005) 429 F.3d 858. See also Ryan Gabrielson, Sobriety Checkpoints Catch Unlicensed Drivers, New York Times, February 13, 2010. See also Ryan Gabrielson, “‘Year of the checkpoint' delivered thousands of impounds,” California Watch, (March 28, 2011).
- Vehicle Code 2814.2(b)-(c) VC -- Unlicensed drivers stopped at DUI checkpoints, endnote 25 above.
- See Dong Ngo, Apple bans DUI checkpoint apps on iOS devices, CNET.com, June 8, 2011; Larry Copeland, BlackBerry backpedals on DUI checkpoint apps, USA Today, March 24, 2011.
- Catharine Smith, Senators Ask Apple To Ban DUI Checkpoint Alert Apps, The Huffington Post, March 23, 2011 (updated May 25, 2011).