Last Thursday, The Palm Beach Post reported that Joe Simpson, the father of famous singers Jessica and Ashlee Simpson, was arrested and charged with two misdemeanor counts of driving under the influence. He was stopped at a Sherman Oaks, California DUI checkpoint.
Checkpoints are an increasingly popular DUI interdiction tool in California among law enforcement agencies. The California Highway Patrol contends that it "began conducting sobriety checkpoint operations in 1984 to ensure the safe passage of each and every motorist traveling on California's roadways by targeting areas where there is a high frequency of impaired driving."
According to the California Office of Traffic Safety, it designated 2010 as the "Year of the Checkpoint," to mark the "significance of an increased commitment to this valuable deterrence and enforcement tool." The OTS claimed that it funded considerably more DUI checkpoints that year, 2,500, which represented a 44 percent increase over the previous year.
At a sobriety checkpoint, drivers are stopped without reasonable suspicion, and may be tested summarily and without probable cause, seemingly in conflict with the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.
In 1990, the United States Supreme Court addressed the apparent conflict in the Court's seminal case on DUI checkpoints, Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz.
In Sitz, the Supreme Court acknowledged that, while sobriety checkpoints infringed on an individual's Fourth Amendment rights, the state interest in reducing drunk driving outweighed any minor infringement. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist opined "No one can seriously dispute the magnitude of the drunken driving problem or the States' interest in eradicating it.***Conversely, the weight bearing on the other scale -- the measure of the intrusion on motorists stopped briefly at sobriety checkpoints -- is slight."
Currently, ten states, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, have found that DUI checkpoints violate their state constitutions or have passed law prohibiting them. Alaska and Montana do not utilized DUI checkpoints even though they have not made them illegal. Of course, as this latest story reminds, California courts have found no such thing, and so the checkpoints are frequently used.
The effectiveness of DUI checkpoints is still a point of dispute, with proponents claiming they provide a deterrent effect and consistently reduce drunk driving, and opponents claiming they constitute a Fourth Amendment violation and are a poor way of detecting and preventing drunk driving. A 2008 study conducted in Kansas City, Missouri found that, of 18,747 cars stopped at sobriety checkpoints, only 1.6% of drivers were arrested for DUI.
Also, it is important to note that while these checkpoints have been found constitutional, there are rules to the way police officers must organize the checkpoint. Any violations from that protocol may constitute a violation of one's rights. A California DUI attorney can explain how the rules might apply in your specific case.