When a driver sees slowing traffic and flashing police lights ahead, the driver may assume there is an accident. However, when the driver gets closer, it appears to be a DUI checkpoint. If the driver had a beer with dinner, they may be unsure whether to admit to drinking the beer or hope the officer can't smell any alcohol.
It is normal for drivers to get nervous when dealing with police at the side of the road. However, nervousness or some other innocent reason should not be the basis for a drunk driving arrest in Virginia. If you have been arrested after being stopped at a sobriety checkpoint, talk to your Virginia DUI defense attorney about your rights.
DUI Checkpoints in Virginia
Sobriety checkpoints, also called DUI checkpoints or roadblocks, are set up to catch drivers who may be impaired or violating some other traffic law. These are supposed to be random and temporary, where the police can legally ask for your license and registration. However, the police are looking for much more than a valid license or insurance. The police are often looking for signs of alcohol or drug impairment which could lead to a roadside investigation.
Sobriety checkpoints may end up with multiple arrests for DUIs, driving on a suspended license, or arresting individuals with an outstanding warrant. However, according to law enforcement, one of the primary purposes of a DUI checkpoint is to act as a deterrent. When the police set up a highly-visible roadblock, it may deter drivers (who do not want to end up randomly being stopped) from drinking and driving.
Are Sobriety Checkpoints Legal?
Sobriety checkpoints have been challenged up to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, in Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, the Supreme Court found sobriety checkpoints met the constitutional standard for a “reasonable search and seizure.” This was based on the government's substantial interest in preventing drunk driving and sobriety checkpoints are rationally related to that interest. A sobriety checkpoint is not considered a police stop but is instead an “administrative procedure.”
Sobriety checkpoints are generally legal in the Commonwealth of Virginia. However, checkpoints also have to be set up according to specific procedures that protect the safety and rights of drivers on the road. If the police do not follow the rules for sobriety checkpoints in Virginia, your criminal defense attorney may be able to challenge the validity of the checkpoint.
Sobriety Checkpoint Guidelines
Virginia has upheld the legality of sobriety checkpoints. However, these checkpoints generally need to follow certain guidelines, including the following.
- Proper use of discretion.
- Roadblock plan designed, implemented and supervised by senior officers of the police department.
- All officers working the checkpoint adequately trained.
- Safe conditions.
- Reasonable length of detention.
- Effective checkpoint.
Can I Drive Away from a DUI Checkpoint?
When drivers notice a checkpoint, they may be unsure whether they should go through it or try and avoid the roadblock. Generally, if a driver is able to safely and legally avoid the checkpoint, they may do so, provided the driver does not provide the police with reasonable suspicion for a stop. There is no law that a motorist has to proceed through a roadblock so avoiding one is not illegal. For example, if there is an intersection before the roadblock and you can safely and legally make that turn to avoid the stop, this is generally allowed.
However, some drivers make an illegal U-turn, cross double-yellow lines, or speed off away from the stop. These traffic violations can give the police a valid reason to make a traffic stop.
What are the Police Looking For at a DUI Checkpoint?
At a DUI checkpoint, the police generally ask for the driver's license and registration but they are looking for other evidence of possible impairment. This includes:
- Smell of alcohol coming from the driver,
- Smell of marijuana inside the vehicle,
- Visual evidence of alcohol or drug paraphernalia inside the vehicle,
- Inconsistent statements from the driver or passengers,
- Bloodshot eyes and slurred speech, or
- A driver admitting to drinking alcohol.
Traffic Investigation at a DUI Checkpoint
When the police officer reasonably suspects the driver may be impaired or engaged in some unlawful activity, they will direct the driver to pull over to the side of the checkpoint. At this point, the police may try and gather other evidence of the driver's impairment.
During a roadside investigation, the police may ask the driver to perform field sobriety tests, including the “walk-and-turn test,” “one-leg-stand test,” and eye tests. However, these tests are not required and there is no automatic penalty for refusing to comply with these often inaccurate tests.
Similarly, the police may ask the driver to submit to a roadside breath test. This is also not mandatory and can be a very inaccurate measure of the driver's blood alcohol content (BAC).
Challenging a DUI Arrest from a Sobriety Checkpoint
If a driver is arrested at a sobriety checkpoint in Virginia, he or she may have a number of legal defenses to fight a criminal conviction for drunk driving. This includes challenging a police search of the driver or vehicle or challenging the officer's basis for turning the checkpoint into a traffic stop.
Law enforcement at checkpoints is looking for drivers who exhibit signs of drug or alcohol use. However, the so-called signs of impairment can be caused by totally innocent reasons. For example, bloodshot eyes can be caused by lack of sleep or allergies. Difficulty hearing the officer's questions can be caused by symptoms of a cold. Simply being nervous at getting stopped at a checkpoint can cause the police to suspect the driver is on drugs.
Many of the signs of drug or alcohol use can be explained by medical conditions, illness, non-impairing medications, or physical limitations. Talk to your Virginia DUI attorney about what might have caused the police to suspect drugs or alcohol if you were not impaired when arrested.
Charlottesville DUI Defense Attorney
Drivers can be arrested at DUI checkpoints even if they have a BAC below the legal limit. With all the penalties involved in a drunk driving arrest, it is important to have an advocate on your side to fight the criminal charges. Talk to an experienced Virginia DUI defense attorney about your case and how to keep your record clear. Contact attorney Thomas M. Wilson today for a free consultation.