DWI roadblocks have had an up-and-down legal history over the past several decades. At one point, it was legal for any officers to set up any checkpoint at any time, and at another time, it was illegal for any police department to set up any checkpoint for any reason. There were, and still are, legitimate arguments on both sides.
So, in Michigan State Police v. Sitz, the Supreme Court did what it had done so many times before and so many times afterward, which is try to find a balance between the two sides.
Why Do Officers Employ Checkpoints?
Police departments love DWI roadblocks because officers do not need reasonable suspicion to pull over a vehicle. Instead, the vehicle must stop if the checkpoint’s rules require it, and if the officer smells alcohol or sees any other evidence of intoxication, no matter how slight, further detention is usually legal.
Checkpoints only appear at certain times, usually around high drinking holidays (New Year’s Eve) or high driving holidays (Memorial Day Weekend), because they are very expensive and most departments simply do not have the money.
The Sitz case essentially incorporated a list of factors from a prior California case. If even one element is missing, the entire checkpoint, and any arrests that it spawned, may be illegal.
- No Officer Discretion: Every element of the roadblock, such as location, hours of operation, and method of pulling over vehicles, must come from a supervisor. Officers in the field must have no discretion in the planning or operation of said checkpoint.
- Neutral Formula: To keep traffic from backing up, officers might stop every third or fourth car. They cannot deviate from the set formula under any circumstances.
- Minimal Detention: There is no hard-and-fast rule, but if motorists have to wait in line for more than two or three minutes, the detention is probably excessive. That’s why officer cannot stop every car, at least in most cases.
- Signage: The roadblock must be clearly marked as a DUI or DWI checkpoint. Furthermore, the signs must give motorists enough notice so they can turn around and avoid the roadblock.
If a motorist turns around to avoid the checkpoint, an officer will almost certainly follow the motorist for at least a few blocks, and such action is legal in most cases.
That brings up another point, which is a motorist’s rights at a checkpoint. You do not have to roll down your window and interface with the officers, but you do have to show them your drivers’ license and comply with any other reasonable requests. Once again, if you simply flash your license at the officer, you will probably be followed.
Contact an Assertive Attorney
DWI checkpoints are permissible so long as they meet all legal requirements. For a free consultation with an experienced DWI defense lawyer in Houston, contact the Law Office of Jim Medley.