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Probable Cause

California drivers arrested for a DUI at sobriety checkpoints often ask how police could stop them without probable cause. The answer is that the courts have given police leeway to conduct sobriety checkpoints, as long as certain criteria are followed. An experienced DUI defense attorney can establish whether California law enforcement officers followed this protocol when conducting a sobriety checkpoint.

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Attorneys for the firm represent clients accused of driving under the influence of alcohol or driving with a blood alcohol level at or above the legal limit in San Francisco, San Mateo, Marin, Alameda, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, Sonoma and Napa counties.

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The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that a person should be free from unreasonable searches and seizures of their person and their belongings. Roadblocks are considered seizures under the Fourth Amendment. The key issue in a Fourth Amendment seizure is reasonableness. Police must have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred, or the seizure must be carried out under a plan containing explicit, neutral limitations on the conduct of individual officers.

California's constitution is based on the same considerations. The government's interests must be weighed against the intrusiveness of the detention. In California, in order to justify stopping or detaining a driver without a warrant, there must be probable cause. Probable cause means the officer must know of specific facts that a crime has taken place, and the person stopped is somehow involved in that activity. Reasonableness means that anyone in the police officer's position would have come to the same conclusion.

However, not every search and seizure requires a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. Sobriety checkpoints have been determined to be part of a regulatory scheme in furtherance of an administrative purpose. Searches pursued to achieve an administrative purpose, not as part of a criminal investigation to secure evidence of a crime, may be permissible under the Fourth Amendment, even without probable cause. In this instance reasonableness is determined by balancing the public interest against the intrusion on the individual. Because of this balancing act, some types of roadblocks, such as sobriety checkpoints, are legal, while others are not.

Thus, if appropriate guidelines have been followed, DUI checkpoints are lawful. The guidelines are fairly straightforward - there must be a random screening process which limits the discretion of the officers in deciding which vehicles to stop. The intrusion on individual motorists must be limited. Each detention must be brief, encompassing only a few questions which allow the officer to observe signs of intoxication. In addition, officers can shine their flashlights into the vehicle in order to observe any alcoholic beverages. The Supreme Court has ruled that this intrusion is minor compared to the value to society in keeping drunk drivers off the road.

In California, drivers are arrested for a DUI after being stopped at other types of roadblocks unrelated to sobriety checkpoints. Some of these roadblocks are lawful, and some are not.

The Supreme Court has held that roadblocks held for the primary purpose of detecting evidence of ordinary criminal activity are unconstitutional, and therefore unlawful. One example is roadblocks designed to detect illegal drugs. Illegal drugs don't pose the same vehicle-related threat to life and limb that exists with drunk driving, the court ruled. If police were allowed to detain citizens based on any crime facing society, then our constitutional protections would disappear. Therefore, because the primary purpose of a drug roadblock is to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing, it is unconstitutional.

However, the Supreme Court has deemed roadblocks that involve police briefly detaining motorists to pass out fliers and ask if they witnessed a crime to be constitutional. In Illinois vs. Lidster, the court ruled that an Illinois roadblock did not violate Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure.

Regardless of whether a suspected drunk driver was stopped at a sobriety checkpoint or at another type of roadblock, a Northern California criminal defense lawyer who focuses on DUI defense can establish whether the roadblock was properly conducted. If the roadblock wasn't conducted lawfully, any evidence collected may be suppressed in court.

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