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California is one of several states that allow the use of DUI checkpoints as a means to deter and detect driving under the influence offenders. Unlike most traffic stops, which require that an officer have reasonable cause before pulling over a motorist, DUI checkpoints allow officers to check all drivers passing through a marked and designated checkpoint and briefly investigate them for alcohol or drug intoxication. The California Supreme Court has held that these checkpoints are permissible provided that the checkpoint adheres to specific guidelines pertaining to how the checkpoint is set up, publicized and operated.
The law requires that checkpoints be clearly marked by elements such as blinking lights, lit signs and patrol cars with illuminated and flashing light bars. Checkpoints must be held at locations that have had a historically high occurrence of DUI offenses and must be set up in a manner that does not endanger the public or the officers manning the checkpoint.
The sight of an upcoming DUI checkpoint operation can sometimes be nerve-wracking for drivers; even those who are not impaired or who have had nothing to drink. The checkpoint will often narrow several lanes of traffic into one, which then forces drivers to pass individually by the officers working at the checkpoint. These officers are supposed to implement a completely neutral method for stopping vehicles, such as stopping every third or fourth car passing through the checkpoint. In reality, there is no way of truly knowing if this methodology is followed and officers may single out vehicles or drivers that they feel “look suspicious.”
A driver is not legally obligated to pass through a checkpoint once one is spotted. However, officers are typically careful to set up checkpoint operations in locations where it is difficult to avoid going through the checkpoint once spotted. In many cases, the only way to avoid a checkpoint would involve violating a traffic law, such as making an illegal U-turn or crossing double yellow lines. Law enforcement recognizes this and officers are often stationed on the perimeter of checkpoint. These officers go after drivers who try and avoid the checkpoint and violate the rules of the road in the process of doing so. These drivers often face additional scrutiny due to their actions.
The law requires that the investigation conducted at the checkpoint be brief and not intrusive. Usually, officers will ask to see the driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. Officers may ask if the driver has been drinking. The officer will be paying close attention for any signs of drug or alcohol intoxication, including bloodshot and/or watery eyes, an odor of alcohol and slurred speech. If the officer suspects that the driver is impaired, the driver will be directed to a separate area and will undergo a full DUI investigation that includes field sobriety testing and breath testing on a preliminary alcohol screening (“PAS”) device. It is important to be polite when passing through the checkpoint and to not do anything that would bring extra attention to oneself.