Many readers of our guide to when police can pull you over raised an interesting question.

Police need to believe you’ve done something wrong before they can stop you, otherwise pulling you over could violate your Fourth Amendment rights. But what about DUI checkpoints, which allow police to stop cars and check whether drivers are drunk?

I put the question to Alex Kreit, a Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor. In 1990, Kreit said, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of DUI checkpoints as one of the limited circumstances where police can pull a car over without any reasonable suspicion.

Kreit explains:

“The court held that the need to get drunk drivers off of the road, and to deter people from driving drunk in the first place, justified the use of checkpoints.  The rule doesn’t permit individual officers to pull cars over in the absence of a checkpoint.  Part of the rationale is that being stopped at a checkpoint is considered to be less intrusive and subject to abuse than being singled out.  If the police set up a DUI checkpoint where they stop and briefly question everyone who passes through (or every fifth car, or what have you), every driver knows that they’re going to be stopped in advance and they know that they’re being stopped simply because they are driving through a checkpoint and not because the police think they’ve done anything wrong.”

Even though it’s not required by law, police agencies often give advance notice of DUI checkpoints. The California Highway Patrol tells the media the time and location of its DUI checkpoints at least 48 hours beforehand and relies the press to get the word out. The San Diego Police Department also says in advance when and where its DUI checkpoints will be. (A San Diego State University grad has developed a cell phone app that alerts people to DUI checkpoints. The grad also is suing SDPD over his treatment at a DUI checkpoint.)

Ultimately, you should think of DUI checkpoints like airport screenings, Kreit said.

“The police couldn’t stop you on the street and look through your bags for no reason.  But, because of the special need to make sure dangerous weapons aren’t brought onto airplanes, they can set up security checkpoints at the airport.  It’s the same sort of rationale for DUI checkpoints.”

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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