DUI Checkpoints: A Constitutional Question

Of all the things Utah drivers don’t want to see while they’re on the road – whether they’re sober or not – the big, yellow, DUI checkpoint sign is probably among the most shunned.  Running into one of these DUI checkpoints (officially referred to as ‘administrative traffic checkpoints’), usually means traffic delays, intrusive questioning and, invariably, a whole lot of traffic tickets for everything from misplaced license plates to full on DUIs.  While most people would probably agree that keeping the roads free of drunk drivers is a good thing, the fact remains that the DUI checkpoint is a highly debatable practice of law enforcement, and many in Utah have argued that DUI checkpoints are a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Despite this, Utah still actively practices DUI checkpoints, and to appreciate the debate requires an understanding of the following: 1) the law behind DUI checkpoints, 2) the Fourth Amendment as it applies, and 3) how these two laws conflict.

1)       The Law Behind DUI Checkpoints

Where the law behind DUI checkpoints is concerned, Utah law treats them in a similar fashion to warrants.  That is to say, to set up a checkpoint, the police must provide an affidavit or plan to a magistrate (typically a judge), specifying the where, when and the reason for the DUI checkpoint (among other things), and if the magistrate approves and gives their signature, the plan is executed and the checkpoint is set up accordingly.  From this simple process, police officers are able to stop any vehicle that happens to pass through the area of the checkpoint – as specified by the signed document – and detain them if they suspect any illegal activity.  If a driver refuses to stop at a checkpoint, the law specifies that they will be guilty of a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 6 months in jail and almost $2,000.00 in court costs and fines.

2)      The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

                Simply put, the primary purpose of this amendment is to protect against arbitrary arrests and invasions of privacy, but the implementation of the amendment has been anything but simple.  Perhaps more than any other, the Fourth Amendment is almost constantly debated, argued and discussed.  The body of case law surrounding the amendment is enormous, for the obvious reason that nearly every criminal case filed must necessarily begin with a police officer stopping a suspect for investigation.  It makes sense, then, that the stop itself would be the first thing the court examines.

                To accommodate this amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has attempted to outline certain requirements that police officers must meet before they are allowed to stop a citizen, commonly referred to as “reasonable suspicion.”  The case law behind this concept is extraordinarily long, complex, and often conflicting, but to make a long story short, before stopping a citizen, police officers are required to have suspicion based on reasonable and articulable facts, as opposed to what the court calls “hunches.” Moreover, reasonable suspicion must be specific and particular: it must be direct toward a specific person or a fact, not a generality.

3)      The Conflicting Laws

So at this point, you’ve probably already concluded where the debate around DUI checkpoints sprang up: if police officers are required to have reasonable suspicion to detain a citizen (as during a traffic stop, for instance), and if that reasonable suspicion has to be specific and particular, how can a checkpoint be constitutional?  After all, not only are they stopping vehicles before they have any reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, but they’re also targeting whatever random driver happens to pass through the area – hardly specific.

Well, as it happens, in 2012 the Utah State Legislature looked into the debate and passed a bill in the House intended to ban DUI checkpoints, as they were “an ineffective way to catch drunken drivers, an infringement on civil rights and an inconvenience for innocent Utahns.”[1]  Ultimately, the bill was defeated in the State Senate, but the attention given to DUI checkpoints in the legislature only serves to reflect the growing recognition of the dubious constitutionality of the practice.

Although they remain legal today, the debate on DUI checkpoints is unlikely to be resolved any time soon, in either the courts or the legislature.  Future litigation is certain to have an impact on how DUI checkpoints are going to be regarded by the law, but for now, they’re something every Utahn is going to have to live with.  And while these checkpoints are relatively rare, always remember that you are required to cooperate with the police during these checkpoints, whether you agree with the constitutionality of the stops or not.

Photo Courtesy of: digidreamgrafix@freedigitalphotos.net

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *