Why Sobriety Checkpoints Aren’t Illegal Searches or Seizures

in Drunk Driving, on

Both the U.S. and the North Carolina constitutions prohibit unreasonable searches or seizures, right? And we know that police in Raleigh and everywhere else have to suspect that a driver is intoxicated before going ahead with field sobriety tests, especially Breathalyzer tests, no? That is why so many police reports include a line about the driver “smelling of alcohol” and “slurring speech.”

So why is it that sobriety checkpoints are constitutional? In our last post, we talked about 140 arrests made at Mecklenburg County checkpoints alone over the holiday weekend. How is it that local police and state patrol could stop all those drivers without a reasonable suspicion of anything? And what about getting a warrant?

The answer is that the U.S. Supreme Court said checkpoints were constitutional in 1990, but only if certain conditions are met. One of those conditions is that law enforcement advertises when and where the checkpoints will be.

Putting drivers on notice that they could be pulled over is not the same as having a reasonable suspicion that a driver is intoxicated, but the Court used a balancing test that determined notice was enough. The dangers posed by drunk drivers to the general population are serious enough to justify relaxing the unreasonable search rule.

Still, not every state allows checkpoints. When the Supreme Court sent that case back to the state, that state’s court ruled that checkpoints violated the state constitution. Only 11 states have taken that position, though, and, clearly, North Carolina is not among them.

There is one surefire way to avoid being stopped at a sobriety checkpoint if you’ve been drinking: Don’t drive. Stay where you are until you are sober, find a cab or ask a friend to be the designated driver.

Source: Valley Independent, “Why Do Police Announce DUI Checkpoints?” Ethan Fry, Nov. 20, 2012

We help people who have been charged with driving while intoxicated, like the people at the checkpoints discussed in this post. If you are interested in learning more about our Raleigh, North Carolina, practice, please visit our drunk driving defense page.