We often discuss the number of arrests at sobriety checkpoints, usually focusing on the number of DWIs over holiday weekends. What you may not realize is that checkpoints can turn up at any time of the year at just about any location in the state. You also may not realize that the checkpoint could be operated by the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, by the county sheriff’s office or by the local police department, and each agency has its own rules for operating a checkpoint.
The courts, however, have ruled on what can and cannot happen at checkpoints, and state statute lays out the basic parameters of checkpoints for law enforcement agencies. There are limits to what officers can do, and motorists need to understand what their rights are and how checkpoints work.
First, checkpoints really can turn up anywhere, and state law does not require law enforcement agencies to notify the public ahead of time. When the checkpoint is underway, there must be a police car nearby with its blue lights flashing — the objective is to provide motorists with an easily identifiable show of authority at the site — but that is the only warning a motorist is likely to have.
Second, officers may not unnecessarily delay drivers during stops. The stops must be “brief” by law, lasting only as long as it takes to check the driver’s license and registration, to administer the sobriety test and complete any other tasks consistent with the stated purpose of the checkpoint (seatbelt use, for example).
To hold a driver longer, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion that the driver is engaged in some other illegal activity. Courts in other states have found that unnecessary delays, including traffic backups caused by slow processing, amount to an unreasonable seizure. Motorists, then, should keep close track of how long it takes to reach the checkpoint and how long the screening process takes.
What can the officer ask a driver during a checkpoint stop? We’ll get into that in our next post.
Source: UNC Chapel Hill School of Government, “Administration of Justice Bulletin: Motor Vehicle Checkpoints,” Jeffrey B. Welty, September 2010, accessed at North Carolina Sheriff’s Association website Aug. 7, 2014