California has stringent laws on drunk driving. Even so, cases of DUI and other related offenses are still high. Statistics derived from CDC show that about 1.8% of licensed drivers in the state of California are reported to drive after having too much to drink. The percentage may not seem much, but the state has over 26 million licensed drivers, and 1.8% of those come close to half a million drivers.
We cannot ignore the risks these drivers pose on the road for other motorists and road users. That is why California law advocates for DUI checkpoints, where drivers can be stopped randomly and checked for operating under the influence. However, these checkpoints are governed by stringent laws, which, when broken, could cause innocent drivers to get arrested for drunk driving. At Orange County DUI Defense Attorney Law Firm, we help you understand California DUI checkpoints to ensure that your arrest was legal.
Understanding California DUI Checkpoints and Their Legality
A DUI checkpoint is a set traffic stop at a random intersection. Generally, these checkpoints are unannounced and established in places where the traffic is high. Sobriety checkpoints are mainly operated by traffic police officers, who block out a section of the road to screen more cars at a go. In most cases, DUI checkpoints work at night and into the late hours as this is the time most drunk driving occurs.
DUI checkpoints allow law enforcement officers to screen motorists and conduct sobriety tests on those who are suspected to be operating under the effects of alcohol. During the stops, the police will check for any signs that may indicate that a driver is operating under the influence. Some of these signs would be the smell of alcohol or the appearance of being intoxicated. The main focus of DUI checkpoints is to prevent drunk driving. However, these checkpoints serve other purposes, for instance:
- They help the police enforce other safety measures on the road, such as the use of seatbelts and headlights
- They allow the police to check for valid driver’s licenses and registrations
- They enable the police to enforce security measures in a state or international border
California sobriety checkpoints are constitutional, as there are both federal and state laws that have held them valid. According to the state’s Supreme Court, sobriety checkpoints are legal administrative inspections, just the same as airport screenings. For that reason, they are exempt from the 4th Amendment Law that states that a law enforcement officer needs to have probable cause to stop and initiate a DUI check on a motorist. It means that the police do not need to have a reasonable suspicion of drunk driving or them to stop and screen a motorist or DUI at a DUI checkpoint.
Since the police can stop any driver at a checkpoint, motorists should understand what they can expect when that happens. As mentioned above, there will be a law enforcement organization that will be operating the checkpoint. They will divide part of the lane where the inspection will happen. When this happens, vehicles will be merged into one or more lanes before the officer stops them.
When stopped, the police will request the motorist to roll down his/her window. The police officer will also ask to have the driver’s registration and license. While at it, the police officer will be having a brief conversation with the driver. The conversation is what helps the police officer evaluate whether or not the driver is operating under the effects of alcohol or drugs.
Factors that Could Cause an Arrest at a DUI Checkpoint in California
The focus of a police officer in a sobriety checkpoint is on whether or not the driver is intoxicated. That is why the police officer will look into any signs that could indicate intoxication. Some of these indications are:
- The smell of alcohol on the driver
- If the driver is fumbling when reaching out for his/her registration or license
- Whether the driver has a problem answering the questions asked by the officer
- Whether the driver has red and watery eyes, slurred speech or some other physical signs of impairment
- Whether the driver has any drugs, alcoholic beverages or drug paraphernalia in his/her vehicle
If the officer finds any signs to indicate that the driver is intoxicated, he/she will start an investigation on drunk driving. To obtain results during this investigation, the police officer might ask the motorist of the following:
- To agree to have a sobriety mouth swab, a test that could help to check if there are any drugs in his/her system. This test is mainly used in the field when an officer suspects that a driver could be under the effects of drugs. If the driver agrees to the test, the law enforcement officer will give him/her a mouth swab, which the driver rubs inside his/her mouth for a few minutes. The officer then places the swab inside a device, where he/she adds some testing solution, and the results will be out in less than ten minutes.
- To submit to a field sobriety test. Note that this testing is entirely optional, and it carries no penalties if the driver refuses to submit to it.
- To agree to have a preliminary breath test for alcohol screening. This screening is done with a roadside breathalyzer on motorists who are under suspicion of drunk driving. The breathalyzer, in this case, will be a hand-held device administered by the officer. Even though the test results obtained here may not be useful in court, they will help the police to determine whether or not to arrest the driver.
The officer might conduct all the three tests or just one, depending on how cooperative the driver is. Some tests may also be performed to check for marijuana and other drugs. The findings of these tests will be the probable cause the officer needs to conduct an arrest. If the test results come out positive for DUI, the law enforcement officer will have to announce the charges for which he/she is arresting the driver. These could be:
- Charges for operating under the effect of alcohol, in violation of California’s VC 23152(a)
- Charges for operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or higher, in violation of California’s VC 23152(b)
- Charges for operating under the effects of drugs, in violation of California’s VC 23152(f)
- Charges for commercial license drunk driving, underage drunk driving, or DUI by a limo, taxi, or in a car-sharing driver
Rules and Guidelines of California DUI Checkpoints
Even though sobriety checkpoints are constitutional, some laws and regulations govern them, which must be adhered to for the inspection to be legal. In California, the courts will consider eight factors to help determine the legality of a particular DUI checkpoint. Note that there isn’t a minimum number of factors that are required for the inspection to pass the legality test.
The reason why these factors must be considered is to serve the interests of California state in the prevention of drunk driving as well as ensure that there is no subjective invasion on drivers, which might generate surprise and fear in them. For that reason, the police must follow the strict rules and procedures, which, if not adhered to, may render the DUI checkpoint illegal. These factors include:
- All decisions regarding California DUI checkpoints must be made by supervising officers and not field officers. It is the mandate of supervising officers to determine how, when, and where a California DUI checkpoint will happen. This way, issues such as capricious and arbitrary enforcements will be avoided. A supervising officer will be appointed to oversee the operations of the checkpoint and ensure that all the rules are correctly followed. The supervisor will also ensure that the location is in a place that is popular with drunken driving accidents or DUI arrests.
- The criteria used in stopping drivers should be neutral. The supervising officer will need more time before the operation to determine how the vehicles will be stopped. A neutral solution should be arrived at so as not to appear as if they are targeting a particular model of cars or individual motorists. The supervisor may, for instance, decide that they will be stopping every fourth car. Note that it will not be proper to stop only drivers who fit a particular profile.
- A reasonable location must be selected for the DUI checkpoint. Picking locations randomly may not produce the expected results. The inspection will, for instance, do well if located in an area that has registered high incidents of DUI fatalities. The location could be a place where the officers will achieve surprise so that DUI suspects will not be able to circumvent. An ideal location could also be a place where approaching traffic will not see the checkpoint until it is too late to escape or withdraw without being noticed.
- The supervising officer must ensure that adequate safety measures have been taken. Safety should always come first when the supervisor is choosing a location for a DUI checkpoint. Some of the things that must be considered in this case include the street layout, traffic patterns, and the roadblock, which should be visible to all approaching motorists.
- The supervising officer must adequately select the time and length of the operation. The law allows supervisors to use sound judgment in determining the time and length of the process of a DUI checkpoint. The effectiveness of the operation should always be considered against its invasiveness to drivers. Even though the main focus is mainly on reducing DUI cases in the state, the supervising officer should also think about the driver’s feelings and anyone else that might be affected.
- A California DUI checkpoint should clearly reflect its precise nature. Drivers should be in a position to tell, even from a distance, that what they are coming close to is an official inspection. This way, they will not be fearful and will not be surprised if asked to stop by the officers. When it is clear to a law-abiding motorist that they have approached a DUI stop, they will not have a problem cooperating with the officers.
An official DUI checkpoint can be clearly marked by some warning signs, marked police vehicles, flashing lights, as well as the presence of law enforcement officers in full uniform.
- Motorists should be stopped for only a few minutes. Officers should only aim at using the least amount of time possible in order not to delay any motorist. The length of time should be long enough to allow the police to ask a few questions and briefly look for any signs of impairment. An officer does not need much time to detect liquor on the driver’s breath, or slurred speech.
The police officer will also be able to quickly see glassy or red eyes without taking a long time with the driver. If any driver does not show any signs of intoxication, he/she must be allowed to drive along without taking more of their time. Only those motorists who are under suspicion for drunk driving should be kept for a few more minutes.
- California sobriety checkpoints should be publicly advertised beforehand. However, the inspection will remain constitutional even though it was not announced in advance. Generally, the police try to publish these advertisements a week before the checkpoint is established. These advertisements can be found in the local newspapers, publications, police websites, and also the local news stations.
Can a Person Avoid a DUI Checkpoint?
A driver who is already operating under the influence may be tempted to turn around so that they can avoid a checkpoint. Other drivers try to evade a sobriety checkpoint because they are in a hurry to get to their destinations. The problem is that the police officer and the law have no way of preventing that from happening. So many motorists intentionally avoid DUI checkpoints. As long as it is safe, a driver can always turn around and use another route.
The other thing is that by advertising the checkpoint in advance, law enforcement officers give motorists enough time to figure out another way out so they can avoid the inspection. There are also rules in the traffic police department that prohibit law enforcement officers from pulling a motorist over just because they tried to dodge a sobriety checkpoint.
However, there are traffic rules that provide exemptions to this rule. The police can stop a motorist avoiding a sobriety checkpoint under the following conditions:
- If the motorists commit a traffic offense while avoiding the inspection
- If he/she has a problem on their vehicle, for instance, a dysfunctional tail light
- If the driver displays any apparent signs of impairment
Can a Motorist Refuse to Cooperate at a DUI Checkpoint?
Refusing to cooperate in a DUI checkpoint is an offense, provided under Vehicle Code 2814.2(a). According to this law, every motorist is required by law to stop, then yield to a California DUI checkpoint. It means that once the driver is stopped at a sobriety checkpoint, they may not decline to cooperate and do as the officers say. If not, they will face charges for failing to submit.
However, this doesn’t mean that the driver must submit to the pre-arrest tests, the cheek swabs, and the field sobriety testing. As mentioned above, these tests are usually optional, and the motorist can refuse to have them without facing any charges. The problem is that refusing to submit to DUI testing may communicate to the officers that you are hiding something. It will lead to an arrest, in which case you will be subjected to evidentiary testing after that.
After arrest, the driver must not refuse to undergo a post-arrest breath or blood testing as this could attract penalties. The law prohibits refusal to participate in chemical testing, and this is an offense that could lead to severe consequences such as an automatic suspension of your driver’s license for one year.
What Happens If a Driver is Caught Without a Driver’s License?
A driver's license is an essential document for any motorist in California. There are laws against operating without a driver’s license, without a valid license or with a suspended license in the state. If therefore, a person is caught driving without a driver’s license in a California sobriety checkpoint, consequences for his/her actions will depend on the following:
- Whether the driver has a legal license but does not have it with them at that time
- Whether the driver doesn’t have a license at all
California law does not just require motorists to apply and renew their driver’s licenses on time but also to have their permits with them while out there on the road. A motorist who is not found with his/her driver's license at that time will face charges as per Section 12951 of California vehicle Code. The law requires all motorists to display their licenses when called upon to do so. The offense here is an infraction should they fail to display their driver’s license, and the driver will pay a fine to get cleared.
If there is a way for the driver to prove, at that instant, that they have a driver’s license, the police could dismiss the charges and allow him/her to drive away.
If, on the other hand, the motorist doesn’t have any valid license to operate a vehicle in the state, it will be treated as a more severe offense. Not having a valid permit could mean that the driver is not fully qualified to drive in the state, or their license has been revoked or suspended. In that case, the charges the driver will face could be:
- Operating a vehicle without a legal driver’s license as provided under Vehicle Code 12500
- Driving with a suspended/revoked license as under Vehicle Code 14601
The driver’s vehicle could be taken away at the sobriety checkpoint, unless under the following circumstances:
- That this was the only charge the motorist is facing. If he/she does not have an arrest record or a pending warrant of arrest, the officers could allow him/her to drive away
- If the motorists or the owner of the vehicle approve the discharge of the car to another driver, who has a valid license. It must be done by the time the checkpoint ends
Note that California police are no longer allowed to impound a vehicle driven by an unlicensed driver automatically. It has been so since 2012. Those who were opposed to this law argued the following:
- That the kind of vehicle impoundment done at DUI checkpoints targeted undocumented non-citizens unfairly, especially those who needed cars to get to work but could not be allowed to obtain licenses.
- That the impoundment qualified as an illegal seizure, which is a significant violation of the 4th Amendment
- That financial gain motivated most impoundments
As a result of these arguments, Vehicle Code 2814.2 was enacted. Now, this is the law that makes it illegal for any officer to immediately impound a vehicle as a DUI checkpoint if the driver’s only crime is to operate without a legal driver’s license.
Learn About Sobriety Checkpoints Beforehand
To avoid having any problems with the police at a DUI checkpoint, ensure that you are well-prepared to stop at a DUI checkpoint on your way home or wherever. The only way to be well-prepared is if you learned about a DUI checkpoint way before it is established. In most cases, the police official releases are always the greatest way to learn about a DUI checkpoint you might encounter in a few days. There are other ways though, some of which include:
- Through the local TV news
- Through police departments websites
- Through news websites or local newspapers
Find an Orange County DUI Defense Attorney Law Firm Near Me
Sobriety checkpoints are legal, but they can be illegal in more ways than one. If, therefore, you were arrested at a DUI checkpoint and you believe that there was a problem that could help reduce or drop your charges, get in touch with us. At Orange County DUI Defense Attorney Law Firm, we have a dedicated team that will not only educate you about DUI checkpoint arrests but also looks into any loophole that could help your case. Call us at 714-740-7866 and let us influence the outcome of your case.