DUI Checkpoints: Are They Constitutional?

As we begin the winter holiday season, you will probably start to see reports of DUI checkpoints being set up throughout the Chicago region. Beginning with the night before Thanksgiving and continuing through New Year’s Day, these checkpoints are designed to be a deterrent for drunk drivers and to get those who are intoxicated off the roads. Many people, however, come to me with questions about the legality of DUI checkpoints and whether they violate the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Important Questions

More than a quarter century ago, the issue was taken before the highest court in the country. The case began with a challenge by residents in Saginaw County, Michigan, who believed that being required to stop at a DUI checkpoint was a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. The plaintiffs claimed that being detained, even for a couple minutes, constituted a seizure of their personal property—their vehicles—which could eventually become an arrest on DUI charges.

Supreme Court Ruling

By a 6-3 margin, the Supreme Court determined that, when properly conducted, a DUI checkpoint is legal. Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice William Rehnquist agreed with the plaintiffs’ claim that such stops are essentially seizures, but that the real question was one of balance. How does the government’s interest in removing drunk drivers from the road and keeping the roads safer match up with “the level of intrusion on an individual’s privacy caused by the checkpoints?” Asking a driver to stop and be observed for a few seconds for signs of intoxication, the court determined, is not overly intrusive, as long as the established protocol is applied evenly and without bias.

Comparison to Roving Patrols

One of the arguments present by the plaintiffs was that DUI checkpoints created unreasonable “fear and surprise” for drivers as they approached. The Court rejected this notion, indicating that a driver can usually see lights and other cars being stopped well in advance. The other alternative—roving patrols of officers looking for drunk drivers—is bound to create much more “fear and surprise” when flashing lights suddenly appear behind a driver who may or may not have been drinking.

Around the Country

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Michigan v. Sitz in 1990, the use of DUI checkpoints has continued throughout the United States with a few exceptions. Some states, including Iowa and Wisconsin, have prohibited the practice through state laws. Even Michigan has amended its constitution since the ruling, and such checkpoints are no longer conducted there, either. If you are traveling in Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri this holiday season, however, you should be prepared to encounter a DUI checkpoint.

If a checkpoint stop results in an arrest on charges of driving under the influence, contact an experienced Joliet criminal defense attorney right away. Call 815-740-4025 for a free consultation at the Law Office of Jack L. Zaremba and get the help you need.

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