DUI Checkpoints and Roadblocks for the Holidays

DUI Checkpoints or Roadblocks Explained

DUI checkpoints are constitutional if conducted properly.

Q: What is a DUI checkpoint?

A: It is road block set up by police to stop every vehicle (or every 3rd, 4th etc. as long as it is applied consistently) for the purposes of detecting drunk or drugged up drivers. In Pima County, a check point may include  multiple agencies including the Tucson Police Department , Pima County Sherriff, Oro Valley PD and Marana PD among others.

Q: Are DUI checkpoints constitutional?

A: Surprisingly they are constitutional. In 1990, The United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of DUI roadblocks even though the law generally forbids officers from stopping motorist unless there is an individualized reasonable  suspicion that the motorists have violated a law. In Michigan v. Sitz, The U.S. Supreme Court held that the governments interest in curbing drunk driving outweighed the intrusion and inconvenience of people who are stopped at road blocks.

Q: What procedures must law enforcement officers follow to make sure sobriety checkpoints are legal?
A: The  National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published recommended procedures for D.U.I. roadblocks. For a D.U.I. checkpoint to be legal, law enforcement must follow guidelines regarding such issues as the location, operation and publicity of the checkpoint, and the extent to which a checkpoint officer has discretion to act.

Q: Has checkpoint effectiveness been measured?
A: Deterrence is one goal and impossible to really measure but it seems reasonable to assume that there are at least some people who would avoid drinking and driving if they knew a road block was likely. However, there have been measurements of the number of people charged with drunk driving as a result of sobriety checkpoints. According to these measurements, a small percentage of all drivers stopped at sobriety checkpoints are charged with D.U.I. (1.6 %  in the Sitz case)



By Justice Brennan

The majority opinion creates the impression that the Court generally engages in a balancing test in order to determine the constitutionality of all seizures, or at least those ”dealing with police stops of motorists on public highways.” This is not the case. In most cases, the police must possess probable cause for a seizure to be judged reasonable. Only when a seizure is ”substantially less intrusive” than a typical arrest is the general rule replaced by a balancing test.

I agree with the Court that the initial stop of a car at a roadblock under the Michigan State Police sobriety checkpoint policy is sufficiently less intrusive than an arrest so that the reasonableness of the seizure may be judged, not by the presence of probable cause, but by balancing ”the gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure, the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest and the severity of the interference with individual liberty.” But one searches the majority opinion in vain for any acknowledgment that the reason for employing the balancing test is that the seizure is minimally intrusive.

Issue of Reasonableness

Indeed, the opinion reads as if the minimal nature of the seizure ends rather than begins the inquiry into reasonableness. Once the Court establishes that the seizure is ”slight,” it asserts without explanation that the balance ”weighs in favor to the state program.” The Court ignores the fact that in this class of minimally intrusive searches, we have generally required the Government to prove that it had reasonable suspicion for a minimally intrusive seizure to be considered reasonable. Some level of individualized suspicion is a core component of the protection the Fourth Amendment provides against arbitrary government action. . . . By holding that no level of suspicion is necessary before the police may stop a car for the purpose of preventing drunken driving, the Court potentially subjects the general public to arbitrary or harassing conduct by the police. I would have hoped that before taking such a step, the Court would carefully explain how such a plan fits within our constitutional framework. . . .

I do not dispute the immense social cost caused by drunken drivers, nor do I slight the Government’s efforts to prevent such tragic losses. Indeed, I would hazard a guess that today’s opinion will be received favorably by a majority of our society, who would willingly suffer the minimal intrusion of a sobriety checkpoint stop in order to prevent drunken driving. But consensus that a particular law enforcement technique serves a laudable purpose has never been the touchstone of constitutional analysis. . . .

By Justice Stevens

The most disturbing aspect of the Court’s decision today is that it appears to give no weight to the citizen’s interest in freedom from suspicionless, unannounced investigatory seizures. . . . On the other hand, the Court places a heavy thumb on the law-enforcement interest by looking only at gross receipts instead of net benefits. Perhaps this tampering with the scales of justice can be explained by the Court’s obvious concern about the slaughter on our highways, and a resultant tolerance for policies designed to alleviate the problem by ”setting an example” of a few motorists. . . . Sobriety checkpoints are elaborate, and disquieting, publicity stunts. The possibility that anybody, no matter how innocent, may be stopped for police inspection is nothing if not attention-getting. The shock value of the checkpoint program may be its most effective feature; Lieutenant Cotton of the Maryland State Police, a defense witness, testified that ”the media coverage . . . has been absolutely overwhelming. . . . Quite frankly we got benefits just from the controversy of the sobriety checkpoints.”

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.”

(“Excerpts From Supreme Court’s Decision Upholding Sobriety Checkpoints, New York Times [New York]  June 15th, 1990 Published:


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