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What Makes DUI Checkpoints Legal?

Despite lingering questions about their cost and constitutionality, DUI checkpoints are a permanent weapon in law enforcement’s arsenal. Research indicates that these devices lower alcohol-related car crash fatalities by as much as 20 percent. At the same time, although DUI checkpoints are not universally acclaimed, they do enjoy broad public support. Over 70 percent of people endorse checkpoints, and even a majority of people who drank and drove at least once during the previous month support checkpoints.

Legally, DUI checkpoints do not violate the Fourth Amendment’s rule against unreasonable searches and seizures even though officers have no factual basis for detaining motorists who go through checkpoints. This law only prohibits “unreasonable” searches and seizures, and courts have consistently held that standardized checkpoints are not illegal.

Legal Basis

That position is relatively new, because in Delaware v. Prouse (1979), the United States Supreme Court dismissed drivers’ license checkpoints – the precursors to DUI checkpoints – as “roving patrols” that violated the Fourth Amendment. But the Justices famously left the door open by declaring that “This holding does not preclude the State of Delaware or other states from developing methods for spot checks that involve less intrusion or that do not involve the unconstrained exercise of discretion. Questioning of all oncoming traffic at roadblock stops is one possible alternative.”

In the 1980s, states developed checkpoints which they believed would pass muster under the Supreme Court’s standard. In State v. Jones (1986), the Florida Supreme Court considered this very question. In upholding the DUI checkpoint on the Mabry Highway in Tampa, the court first noted that the Supreme Court had already upheld a similar scheme when, in United States v. Martinez-Fuerte (1976), the Justices ruled that fixed border patrol checkpoints did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Florida Supreme Court concluded, based on the dicta in Prouse and the holding in Martinez-Fuerte, that Florida’s DUI checkpoints were legal.

Checkpoint Factors

Since DUI checkpoints push the limits of Fourth Amendment law, they must abide by very specific standards, and even a somewhat minor flaw or irregularity may serve as the basis for throwing out the arrest. The Jones court articulated a twelve-point test for evaluating checkpoints. Some of these factors include:

  • Officer’s Discretion: Officers at the checkpoint must have no discretion on any operational aspect, whether it be the location or duration of the checkpoint, the manner in which vehicles are detained, or any other aspect.
  • Higher Directive: Instead, every operational aspect must be determined in advance by supervisory-level officers.
  • Public Notice: In addition to publicizing the checkpoint in advance, officers must place sufficient signage that enables motorists to bypass the checkpoint if they so please.
  • Length of Detention: There is no hard and fast rule, but a detention longer than three or four minutes, including wait time, is probably sufficient to engender an unreasonable amount of “fear or anxiety,” thus making the checkpoint illegal.
  • Effectiveness: The proof is in the pudding, as the old saying goes. If the checkpoint was up for several hours and yielded no arrests, it is reasonable to assume that officers did not set it up for the purpose of combatting DUI.

The court included a catch-all “any other relevant circumstances” factor.

Partner with Aggressive Attorneys

DUI checkpoints are legal in Florida as long as they adhere to rigorous legal standards. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense lawyer in Port St. Lucie, contact Eighmie Law Firm, P.A. We routinely handle cases in Lucie County and nearby jurisdictions.

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