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In modern society, we are all familiar with sobriety checkpoints. Law enforcement sets up a “checkpoint” in a particular location. Any driver that drives to the “checkpoint”, is stopped, and the police conduct an investigation into the driver's sobriety.   The question becomes how is this legal? Is this the way Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the Founding Fathers envisioned America? I doubt it, but the reality is that they are legal in California today if the police comply with certain standards discussed below. A stop at a sobriety checkpoint can be challenged in Court through a Motion To Suppress Evidence. If one can show that the checkpoint did not comply with Constitutional standards, than all of the evidence obtained subsequent to the stop at the checkpoint will not be allowed in Court (in essence, all of the evidence in the case).

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizures. In order for law enforcement to have a right to detain a vehicle or a person, there must be a “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”Terry v. Ohio 392 U.S. 1 (1968). This reasonable suspicion must be based on “articulable facts, a mere hunch (that a crime is being committed) will not suffice.”  Therefore, in order for the police to pull over a vehicle, they must have “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” Generally, the police detect a violation of the Vehicle Code, and initiate a stop of the vehicle.

This had been the existing standard until The United States Supreme Court, in the case of Michigan Department of State Police v Sitz, 496 US 444 (1990), declared that sobriety checkpoints are Constitutional, even though people are stopped with no suspicion that a crime has been committed. The Court made an exception for DUI cases. The reasonable suspicion standard still applies to detention, just not for DUI checkpoints.  The Supreme Court left it open to the states to determine whether checkpoints were legal under their State Constitutions. Interestingly enough, then states have found checkpoints to be unconstitutional under their state constitutions: Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

The Court in Sitz stated that the stopping of the vehicles was reasonable. The Court applied a balancing test, specifically addressing the concern of drunk drivers on the road, and emphasized that the intrusion on the motorist was a “slight” one.

Justice Stevens disagreed. In his dissent, he stated:

“I believe the Court is quite wrong in blithely asserting that a sobriety checkpoint is no more intrusive than a permanent checkpoint. In my opinion, unannounced investigatory seizures are, particularly when they take place at night, the hallmark of regimes far different from ours;the surprise intrusion upon individual liberty is not minimal. On that issue, my difference with the Court may amount to nothing less than a difference in our respective evaluations of the importance of individual liberty, a serious albeit inevitable source of constitutional disagreement. On the degree to which the sobriety checkpoint seizures advance the public interest, however, the Court's position is wholly indefensible.

The Court's analysis of this issue resembles a business decision that measures profits by counting gross receipts and ignoring expenses. The evidence in this case indicates that sobriety checkpoints result in the arrest of a fraction of one percent of the drivers who are stopped, but there is absolutely no evidence that this figure represents an increase over the number of arrests that would have been made by using the same law enforcement resources in conventional patrols. Thus, although the gross number of arrests is more than zero, there is a complete failure of proof on the question whether the wholesale seizures have produced any net advance in the public interest in arresting intoxicated drivers.”

Justice Stevens, continued:

“To be law abiding is not necessarily to be spotless, and even the most virtuous can be unlucky. Unwanted attention from the local police need not be less discomforting simply because one's secrets are not the stuff of criminal prosecutions. Moreover, those who have found — by reason of prejudice or misfortune — that encounters with the police may become adversarial or unpleasant without good cause will have grounds for worrying at any stop designed to elicit signs of suspicious behavior.”

“This is a case that is driven by nothing more than symbolic state action — an insufficient justification for an otherwise unreasonable program of random seizures. Unfortunately, the Court is transfixed by the wrong symbol — the illusory prospect of punishing countless intoxicated motorists — when it should keep its eyes on the road plainly marked by the Constitution.”

So checkpoints are constitutional in the eyes of the Federal government. California dealt with the issue specifically in the case of Ingersoll v Palmer,43 C3d 1321 (1987). The Court in Ingersoll stated that sobriety checkpoints were Constitutional, as long as the seven factors below are complied with:

  1. Location in a reasonable area
  2. Reasonable time and duration
  3. Reasonableness in the length of time drivers are detained
  4. Indication that the checkpoint is an official police act
  5. Supervisory decision making
  6. Safe conditions for drivers
  7. Limited discretionary power for officers in the field

According to People v. Banks (1993) 6 C4th 926, law enforcement is not required to announce publicly in advance that a checkpoint will be occurring at a particular location, but it is a factor to be considered in determining whether it was a constitutionally reasonable checkpoint.

The final case that is relevant to fighting checkpoint stops is City of Indianapolis v. Edmond (2000) 531 U.S 32. Here the United States Supreme Court drew a distinction between checkpoints that are designed to promote public safety, and those “whose primary purpose was to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.”  In essence, if the goal of the checkpoint is to promote road safety (as the Court in Sitz stated), than it is legal. If the goal of the checkpoint is to arrest people, then it is not legal.  The Court basically set up an intent requirement.

In summary, sobriety checkpoints in California are Constitutional if they comply with the following factors:

•  Location in a reasonable area

•  Reasonable time and duration

•  Reasonableness in the length of time drivers are detained

•  Indication that the checkpoint is an official police act

•  Supervisory decision making

•  Safe conditions for drivers

•  Limited discretionary power for officers in the field


The intent of the checkpoint is to promote road safety, not to arrest drivers for a DUI.


Michigan Department of State Police v Sitz

People v. Banks

City of Indianapolis v. Edmond

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