The Current State of Sobriety Checkpoints in California
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More Californians will be stopped at roadside sobriety checkpoints in 2010 than ever before.
According to the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS), police departments across the state will conduct 2,500 sobriety checkpoints in 2010, a 44 percent increase over 2009. With the increased number of checkpoints, come increased concerns over the constitutional validity and effectiveness of these law enforcement tactics.
For people who face criminal charges stemming from sobriety checkpoints, it is important to understand that not all roadside sobriety checkpoints are necessarily set up and administered in a constitutionally permissible manner. Consultation with an experienced attorney versed in the legalities of sobriety checkpoints can reveal problems with a given checkpoint that could cause a case to be dismissed, or a DMV order of suspension, set aside.
According to the California Highway Patrol, almost 23,000 Americans will lose their lives in DUI related motor vehicle accidents every year. That equates to one death every 22 minutes. To combat these sobering statistics, California began to conduct sobriety checkpoints in areas where there is a high rate of DUI arrests and other alcohol related accidents.
In defense of these tactics, many argue that sobriety checkpoints serve an extremely valuable purpose, regardless of the intrusiveness of the stops. Proponents argue that:
Proponents of sobriety checkpoints argue that the success of these checkpoints relates to the fact that they reach both drinking and non-drinking drivers. By stopping both groups, the California law enforcement community argues that they can educate all people about the dangers and penalties associated with driving under the influence, deterring some people from drinking and driving in the future.
Most everyone agrees that arresting drunk drivers is a worthwhile goal to pursue. What many people question is the constitutionality and effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints.
While 5,000 DUI arrests occurred at sobriety checkpoints in 2008, this number is actually small compared to the total number of alcohol related arrests in California. According to the OTS, there were 215,000 DUI arrests in California in 2008, meaning that the number of arrests at sobriety checkpoints accounts for only 2.3 percent of all DUI arrests.
Law enforcement spent $14 million in federal grant money to arrest 5,000 people at sobriety checkpoints. Many wonder whether that money could have been used more efficiently elsewhere.
Many opponents of sobriety checkpoints argue that:
While California law does not expressly grant police officers the power to conduct sobriety checkpoints, the law does grant them the authority to enforce criminal and traffic laws. Many people have challenged the legality of these checkpoints based upon constitutional grounds.
Some courts have in effect held that the intrusion that these checkpoints have on a person’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures is justified by the seriousness of drunk driving and the possible deterrent effect of sobriety checkpoints.
To assess the reasonableness of the search and seizure courts examine and balance the governmental interest justifying the search against the invasion the search entails.
In the 1987 California Supreme Court Case of Ingersol v. Palmer, the key to all Fourth Amendment issues was reasonableness. In determining whether a particular roadside sobriety checkpoint is constitutionally valid, the court examines a number of factors or limitations, including consideration of whether:
There are strategies that a person can use to challenge the constitutionality of a sobriety checkpoint in California. The amount of precautions taken by law enforcement officers to minimize the intrusiveness of the stop can determine the validity of the sobriety checkpoint. If the police stop someone in a sobriety checkpoint, it may be possible to challenge the stop and subsequent criminal charge. One should speak with a local California attorney to learn more about his or her options.