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Are DUI Checkpoints Legal?

Local law enforcement agencies will often set up checkpoints along roads to detect drunk drivers.  This is most common around holidays when the law enforcement officers know that more people will be out drinking and driving, such as New Years Eve and the Fourth of July. 

Since these DUI checkpoints regularly ensnare people who haven’t been drinking and driving, questions quickly arose about whether the checkpoints constituted an unreasonable search and seizure.  The Supreme Court weighed in on the question in a 1990 decision and determined that DUI checkpoints are in fact a legal and valid law enforcement method.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that the people have a right against unreasonable searches and seizures.  Searches will often involve the issuance of a search warrant, but not always.  Searches and seizures can occur without a warrant under certain circumstances as long as the search is reasonable. 

Most of the time, a search will be reasonable if there is probable cause for law enforcement officers to believe that it is necessary.  A search incident to an arrest, for example, is generally considered reasonable since there is already probable cause to believe that the subject of the search has done something wrong.

Searches and seizures that occur randomly or that are overly burdensome or intrusive, however, will generally not be considered reasonable by a court.  Any evidence acquired as a result of such a search will be removed from the official record in a case.

DUI checkpoints pose an interesting application of the Fourth Amendment’s rules.  Stopping the driver of a car is considered a seizure since the person has to pull over and can’t leave again until the officer allows it.  Since the law enforcement officers at a DUI checkpoint stop every single driver without any individualized suspicion, it would appear at first glance that the officers would not have sufficient probable cause to conduct the seizure of the drivers. 

In certain cases where the type of seizure is minimally intrusive, however, the Supreme Court has decided that a balancing test is more appropriate for determining the reasonableness of a search than the probable cause standard.  In the case concerning DUI checkpoints, Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, a majority of the Supreme Court Justices determined that the needs of the state to prevent drunk-driving accidents outweighed the minimal intrusion on sober drivers who just happen to get caught up in the DUI dragnet.  Thus, the Justices argued, DUI checkpoints did not constitute an unreasonable search and seizure.

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