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Are sobriety checkpoints legal?

Summertime means time off for festive holidays (July 4th anyone?), family vacations and time spent out on the boat. These activities often involve the consumption of alcoholic beverages, prompting many law enforcement agencies - including those in Nassau County - to increase patrols for DWI.

One way law enforcement has traditionally handled DWI enforcement is through the use of sobriety checkpoints, especially around prominent summer holidays like July 4th (Independence Day), Labor Day weekend and Memorial Day weekend. And while DWI checkpoints have been used for years at this point, many still question their legality.

Don't DWI checkpoints violate the Fourth Amendment?

Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, citizens are guaranteed the right to protection from illegal search and seizure of their property from law enforcement. This essentially means cops cannot pull someone over or question them without having probable cause that they are committing a crime, like drunk driving.

Critics argued for decades that DWI checkpoints violate citizens' Fourth Amendment rights because most drivers drive sober. Subjecting sober drivers to a DWI checkpoint essentially assumes they are committing a crime when they are not.

However, in 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the legality of sobriety checkpoints. It ruled that properly conducted "sober checkpoints" are designed to prevent drunk driving and thereby uphold a state's interest in promoting and protecting public safety, which is consistent with the Fourth Amendment.

So what do "proper" sobriety checkpoints look like?

Just because DWI checkpoints are legal does not mean they do not have any rules. In New York, police officers must adhere to the following guidelines when setting up a DWI checkpoint:

  • Identify the presence of a DWI checkpoint with signs and adequate lighting
  • Wear proper uniforms that clearly identify officers as Long Island PD
  • Organize the checkpoint in such a way that allows traffic to flow safely and efficiently through it
  • Use a randomized formula for stopping cars that is determined ahead of time
  • Detain motorists for a reasonable amount of time
  • Adhere to instructions from an on-site supervisor, who must be present and oversee the entire operation

Defense against DWI charges

In effect, the rules of a "normal" DWI arrest still apply in order for someone to get arrested at a DWI checkpoint. Therefore, if you were stopped and arrested at a DWI checkpoint, your lawyer will look into the following issues:

  • Did police have probable cause to ask you to take a breath test or field sobriety tests?
  • Were BAC machines properly calibrated and samples handled appropriately?
  • Were you properly Mirandized when being taken into custody?

The answers to these questions could make all the difference in your DWI case.

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