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In recent years, DUI checkpoints have become increasingly popular with law enforcement agencies throughout the Los Angeles area. Unlike typical DUI vehicle stops which require that an officer have reasonable cause to believe that a driver is violating the law before that driver can be pulled over, DUI checkpoints allow officers to briefly stop all drivers passing through the checkpoint to check if they are potentially under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The California Supreme Court has ruled that these checkpoints are permissible because they are “administrative inspections” similar to screenings conducted at the airport. While it is generally understood that officers conducting a sobriety checkpoint are focused on drivers who are violating the DUI laws many people question whether or not police at a DUI checkpoint should be able to cite or arrest people for other, non-DUI related offenses.
Given some of the Constitutional concerns associated with DUI sobriety checkpoints, the California Supreme Court established narrow guidelines that all checkpoints must follow in order to be considered valid. The California Supreme Court requires that the detention and investigation must be brief and in order to protect the general public from inappropriate government intrusion. While officers are at checkpoints with the express purpose of enforcing the DUI laws, they certainly will not ignore any other crimes that are witnessed or that occur in their presence.
This means that if an officer observes drugs in plain sight in a vehicle passing through the checkpoint or if the officer witnesses an assault between passengers in a vehicle, the officer is justified in stopping the vehicle and investigating further. Clearly, an officer is not expected to ignore a crime they observe simply because they are working at a DUI-specific checkpoint.
However, if an officer’s actions or conduct during the checkpoint goes beyond what has been permitted by the California Supreme Court, the search and subsequent seizure may be deemed unlawful. In these cases the evidence obtained could be suppressed and the prosecution may be unable to proceed on criminal charges.
While it would be lawful for an officer to arrest a driver who is observed at a checkpoint with illegal drugs in plain view, the officer would not be justified in searching a driver’s trunk merely because the driver looks “suspicious” or “nervous” while passing through a checkpoint.
There may be circumstances in which the legality of the detention and subsequent search would be a close call. For example, an officer may notice a driver at a checkpoint with numerous prescription bottles all over his vehicle. Unless that officer observes clear signs of intoxication, any further detention or search based on the presence of prescriptions may be considered unlawful, as it is not per se illegal to carry numerous prescription bottles. Stopping the driver to verify that the prescriptions are valid may be deemed an unreasonable search and detention beyond the scope of the DUI checkpoint. Courts may also be concerned if officers start bringing drug-sniffing dogs to DUI checkpoints to try and catch drug offenders. This may also be seen as an action that would fall outside the California Supreme Court’s rules regarding sobriety checkpoints.