Friday, December 4, 2015

The Law Concerning DUI Checkpoints

With the holiday season in full-swing, the presence of law enforcement on the roads looking for impaired drivers will be great.  In addition to heightened patrols on the roads, many agencies, especially municipal police departments, will be operating what they commonly refer to as sobriety checkpoints.  If you drive in the Denver Metro Area for very long, you are likely to run across one of these "checkpoints" somewhere, and the holidays are a favorite time for law enforcement to set up these operations, given the frequency of celebrations offering alcoholic beverages.  There are established procedures police must follow in conducting these checkpoints, and many videos may be found online of individuals who have recorded their encounters.  Here are some things to keep in mind should you encounter of these "sobriety checkpoints"...

First, these checkpoints ARE legal/constitutional, as long as they are conducted properly.  These roadblocks or checkpoints are considered administrative searches under the Fourth Amendment, which means that they are conducted for general maintenance of health, safety and/or welfare of the community.  The stopping of vehicles normally requires, at a minimum, reasonable suspicion of illegal activity.  However, in administrative searches, as long as every vehicle coming through the checkpoint is stopped, or if there is a random formula of selection, e.g. every third car is stopped, then the roadblock is permissible.  Colorado law requires that advance notice of the checkpoint be posted to allow persons who do not wish to be subjected to the roadblock the opportunity to take an alternate route.  Although avoiding a checkpoint is NOT in and of itself reasonable suspicion, police can and often do follow vehicles that avoid these checkpoints and, if driving violations are observed, stop these vehicles and contact the driver. 

Once stopped, police are only permitted to contact the driver and require the driver to produce standard, required documentation, such as driver's license, automobile registration and proof of insurance.  Drivers and occupants are not required to answer any questions posed by officers or engage them in conversation if they do not wish to do so.  Officers can only require the driver or occupants to exit the vehicle if the officer has reasonable suspicion of illegal activity.  However, even if you are required to exit your vehicle, you still are not required to answer any questions, make any statement, or perform any type of "roadside sobriety" tests, referred by law enforcement as Standard Field Sobriety Tests.  Should an officer believe he/she has probable cause to believe a driver is impaired or under the influence, the officer can request that a chemical test of the driver's blood or breath be completed; failure to complete such a requested test can result in loss of the driver's license.

Sobriety checkpoints are common this time of year, and although they are legal if properly conducted, your rights are still very much in play as in any police contact.  Should your encounter with a checkpoint result in criminal/traffic charges, an experienced attorney will be helpful in evaluating the validity of your contact and charges and in determining what legal defenses may be available to you.  Have a safe and enjoyable holiday season!