What is a DUI Checkpoint?

If you live in San Diego you have likely encountered or at least heard about the police setting up a DUI checkpoint. A checkpoint is when a police agency sections off a portion of the road and funnels traffic into one or two lanes. Then, Officers will contact the drivers and request their license and registration. During this exchange as well as the brief conversation that follows the officer will be evaluating your movements, speech, and appearance to look for signs of impairment.

Where are Checkpoints Located?

These checkpoints are commonly set up on nights and in areas where a large amount of drinking is expected to take place. Some common areas of town where you find checkpoints is leaving Pacific Beach or the Gaslamp area downtown. You will also see checkpoints on holidays or following big events such as St. Patrick’s Day, New Year’s Eve, or after a Charger’s game.

Can I Find Out Where a Checkpoint Is Going to Be Ahead of Time?

In San Diego it is common for the police to make public where and when they will be having checkpoints. The police are not required to make these announcements but it is believed to reduce the number of drunk drivers by deterring people from drinking without securing a sober ride home.

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Are Checkpoints Legal?

You might be thinking, “Wait a minute, I thought the police had to have probable cause to pull me over…?” For the most part, you are correct. However, the California Supreme Court in Ingersoll v. Palmer (a 1987 case) deemed checkpoints constitutional as long as they follow eight “functional guidelines for minimizing the intrusiveness of the sobriety checkpoint stop.” If you are arrested at a DUI checkpoint, Attorney Jennifer Gerstenzang will scrutinize each of these factors in fighting your case.

  1. Was the Checkpoint Placed in a Reasonable Location?
    There must be some nexus or relationship between the chosen location of the checkpoint and prior DUI-related accidents or arrests. In other words, it must be in a place where the police know a lot of drunk driving occurs.
  2. Was the Time and Length of the Checkpoint Reasonable?
    Supervising officers must use “good judgment” in deciding the time of day and the duration of the checkpoint. This is why many of the checkpoints are later at night rather than during rush hour traffic. The effectiveness of the checkpoint must be weighed against the inconvenience or intrusiveness to drivers.
  3. Does The Checkpoint Look Like an Official Police Action?
    It should be clear to drivers that they are approaching a Police DUI stop. The police may indicate this by using warning signs, flashing lights, marked police vehicles and uniformed officers.
  4. Is The Checkpoint Safe For Drivers?
    The purpose of the checkpoint is to make the roads safer. Therefore, the checkpoint itself should not make the roadway more dangerous. The Officers must consider things like traffic patterns, the street layout, and making sure visibility is good when setting up the checkpoint.
  5. Did the Supervising Officer Make All the Operational Decisions?
    The Supervising Officer rather than the officers in the field must make the decisions regarding where the checkpoint will take place, when it will occur, and how it will be run. These decisions should not be left up to the discretion of the officers in the field.
  6. Was the Criteria for Stopping the Motorists Neutral?
    The Field Officers are not allowed to select which drivers they wish to pull over on the spot. Their discretion in the field is limited. Instead, a formula must be determined ahead of time by the Supervising Officer that pre-selects which cars will be pulled over. For example, this formula could be every fourth car, every tenth car, four consecutive cars out of every 9 cars, etc.
  7. How Long Was The Driver Detained?
    When a Driver is stopped at a checkpoint the detention should be as short as possible. The stop should only be long enough for the officer to question the motorist briefly and look for signs of intoxication or impairment. If no signs are observed the driver should be allowed to pass through the checkpoint without further delay.
  8. Were Drivers Sufficiently Noticed of the Checkpoint?
    While the police are not obligated to advertise or broadcast the location and times of checkpoints, they do need to make it clear to motorists that they are approaching a checkpoint.

Can I Turn Around and Avoid the Checkpoint?

If you see a sign for a checkpoint coming up and, for one reason or another, are not interested in going through the checkpoint you may decide to turn around. While this is not illegal, it may not surprise you that the police are looking for people who are doing just that. Though you are not required to drive through the checkpoint be very careful that you do not break any traffic laws when avoiding the checkpoint. The Officer will be looking for any infraction- no matter how slight- to justify the probable cause necessary to initiate a stop.