The Complicated Legality of Sobriety Checkpoints

Posted by William Bly | Feb 10, 2016 | 0 Comments

Every time a police officer pulls over your car, they're conducting a “seizure.” Luckily, the Fourth Amendment prevents police from conducting searches and seizures that are “unreasonable.” However, if a police officer has probable cause to suspect that you're committing a crime, such as operating under the influence (OUI), then most searches that they do to gather evidence of that crime is considered reasonable. These are all general, cut-and-dry rules of police investigation.

However, when it comes to probable cause, and reasonable and unreasonable searches, sobriety checkpoints occupy a dangerous gray area that can get you arrested even if you've shown no symptoms of drunk driving before being searched.

Sobriety Checkpoints

The idea behind a sobriety checkpoint is simple: Stop every car that passes and test everyone's sobriety. If you seem drunk, you get taken aside and put through the usual battery of tests, as if you had just been pulled over. If you fail field sobriety tests, a breath test, or if the police officer thinks that you're intoxicated, you'll get arrested and taken to the police station.

The Legal Gray Area of Sobriety Checkpoints: No Probable Cause

Sobriety checkpoints are legally problematic from the very first part of the process which is stopping every car that passes. By pulling everyone over and searching every driver for evidence of intoxication, police are ignoring the requirement that they have probable cause before performing a search. Remember that just pulling over a car is a seizure that results in a search, so if police pull everyone over, they're not going to have probable cause in nearly all cases. In theory, this should make sobriety checkpoints unconstitutional as a violation of your Fourth Amendment rights.

Supreme Court Finds Sobriety Checkpoints to be a Reasonable Search

In 1990, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that sobriety checkpoints didn't violate the Fourth Amendment. The Court found that passing through checkpoints led to very little intrusion for most drivers, and this inconvenience was outweighed by the government's interest in stopping drunk driving. As a result, the Court decided that sobriety checkpoints aren't “unreasonable” searches.

Some States Don't Allow Sobriety Checkpoints: Maine Is Not One of Them

Even though the Supreme Court held that sobriety checkpoints are constitutional searches, states like Maine, Tennessee, or Florida can use their state constitutions or laws to protect your civil rights even more than the Federal Constitution. There are 12 states that do this which include nearby Rhode Island. Maine has however, publically agreed with the U.S. Supreme Court that sobriety checkpoints don't infringe on your rights, and our state's police perform them on a constant basis.

If You Get Arrested During a Checkpoint, Call William T. Bly

Getting arrested for an OUI after pulling over for a sobriety checkpoint is maddening. It often means that you weren't even endangering others on the road when you were subjected to police searches that are considered illegal in 12 other states. You need to defend your rights. Call William T. Bly at (207) 571-8146 or contact him online to fight your OUI charge. The consequences of an OUI conviction are serious, so you need the best OUI defense attorney in southern Maine on your side.

About the Author

William Bly

William T. Bly, Esq. is a graduate of Rutgers College where he majored in Political Science with a minor in U.S. History. Attorney Bly attended and graduated the University of Maine School of Law. During his time in law school, Attorney Bly focused on criminal defense.

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