Many people are curious about the legality of sobriety checkpoints, where the police randomly stop vehicles to check if drivers are intoxicated. This has long been debated under the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches. The issue these checkpoints pose is basically the right to privacy versus public safety.
The U.S. Supreme Court addressed this issue in Michigan v. Sitz. In a split decision, the Court held that such checkpoints are constitutionally permissible. The Court weighed the state’s interest in preventing drunk driving and the extent that sobriety checkpoints advance that interest against the intrusion upon individual motorists that are stopped at such checkpoints. The Court found that the balance of these competing interests weighs more heavily in favor of the allowing the checkpoints. Thus, sobriety checkpoints are permitted by the U.S. Constitution.
While the U.S. Constitution does permit sobriety checkpoints, individual states are free to decide the issue for themselves too. The U.S. Constitution is best thought of as establishing a minimum set of protections for the people. Individual states cannot reduce or otherwise infringe upon these freedoms, but are permitted to provide additional protections and freedoms. Some states provide additional protections in this area and prohibit sobriety checkpoints. For example, sobriety checkpoints are illegal under Michigan’s state Constitution. However, other states, such as Ohio, make use of sobriety checkpoints.
In Ohio, sobriety checkpoints are legal if four conditions are met.
These conditions are:
- The checkpoint or roadblock is placed in a location that is safe and visible to motorists.
- Advanced warnings signs are provided informing motorists of the checkpoint. They must be illuminated at night.
- There are uniformed police officers and official vehicles visible at the checkpoint in order to show the police power.
- The roadblock location, time, and procedures are predetermined by policy-making administrative officers, pursuant to carefully formulated standards and neutral criteria.
The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) has produced a guidelines for sobriety checkpoints.
Some of these guidelines are:
- Use a minimum 10-12 uniformed police officers. Law enforcement agencies should assign a sworn, uniformed officer to supervise the planning of a sobriety checkpoint. This officer needs to be highly knowledgeable of the state’s sobriety checkpoint rules and regulations.
- Select a location with a high incidence of impaired driving related crashes or fatalities. Be sure safety of the public and the police can be an utmost priority. There must be adequate space, and the location must be highly visible.
- Warning devices and signals must be located at such a distance as to give motorists adequate time to stop. Warning devices should comply with the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices.
The Ohio Highway Patrol has also written a summary of its own procedures.
These procedures include:
- The site of the check must have a long term history of alcohol-related crashes and/or incidents of impaired driving.
- It is necessary to provide public notice of the general date, time, and location for the event about a week in advance.
- The police officer that is in charge of the sobriety checkpoint must brief the officers who will operate it. This briefing will give an overview of the operation; provide each officer a clearly defined set of objectives; and emphasize the necessary procedures to make the checkpoint as safe and efficient as possible.
- Large, reflective signs and fully marked police vehicles are placed on the side of the road well in advance of the actual checkpoint. A “Sobriety Checkpoint Ahead Sign” is placed at the beginning of the lane of traffic cones, or other devices that mark the boundaries of the checkpoint itself. The checkpoint area must be illuminated by portable lights, flares, and the emergency lights of several police cars in order to provide additional protection for the checkpoint.
A complete summary of these guidelines can be found at http://statepatrol.ohio.gov/sobcheck.stm.
If you’ve been charged with a DUI, call my law firm at (216) 369-9106 to schedule a free consultation. Or, you can use the contact form to the right to send an email directly to me.
Please remember that nothing on this page is legal advice. It is provided for informational purposes only.