The DUI or “sobriety” checkpoint is one of the methods in Oklahoma and other states by which local, county and state law enforcement personnel seek to identify drunk drivers and take them off the roads. DUI checkpoints are different and have different requirements than driver’s license checkpoints which are also used in Oklahoma. The legality of these DUI checkpoints under both the U.S. Constitution and its Oklahoma state counterpart is no longer the subject of any real debate, but the methods that police use to set up and operate these roadblocks can still be the source of some confusion on the part of drivers, especially when news accounts refer to “secret” checkpoints — the very name of which sounds more like something you might encounter in a country with a dictatorial government instead of a representative democracy.
So what are the legal requirements for DUI checkpoints in Oklahoma? Practical experience, guidelines promulgated by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, and federal and state court decisions have established basic safeguards to protect the rights of individuals. Some of these safeguards are:
- Checkpoints must be set up in accordance with a recognizable police department policy intended to deter drunk driving, and have the support of the local district attorney. Put another way, the location of a checkpoint cannot be arrived at in a random or arbitrary manner, but must have some foundation based on a need that can be articulated (such as a number of drunk driving accidents in the vicinity in a given period of time).
- They must operate in a consistent manner. Particularly if the checkpoint does not stop every car that comes into contact with it, then the pattern of stopping vehicles (for example, every third car) must be adhered to rigorously. Similarly, the operation of the checkpoint must be reasonable: one indication of this is to keep the stoppage of traffic to the minimum amount as is practical.
- The public must be notified in advance that a checkpoint will be put into operation, and it must be clearly identifiable as a checkpoint. This can be accomplished by having a highly visible presence of uniformed officers, by the use of signage, and by the use of the red-and-blue lights on police vehicles.
So, especially given this last point above, how can police legally establish a “secret” checkpoint? And why would they want to do that?
The answer to this question is part technical in nature, and part tactical. Technically speaking, the legal requirement for police to provide advance notice of a checkpoint does not require them to notify the public of its precise location, although they frequently do this. It is sufficient to state the date and times during which the checkpoint will be in operation; the location can be as general as the county where it will be situated.
From a tactical standpoint, a foreseeable drawback of telling the public exactly where a DUI checkpoint will be is that it provides at least some of the people whom the checkpoint will be meant to screen — drunk drivers, or those who might otherwise be apprehended or cited for offenses ranging from unlawful possession of a weapon or an outstanding arrest warrant — advance notice of where and when “not” to find themselves.
So it would seem that, given the discretion that law enforcement has about how much to divulge to the public in advance about a checkpoint’s location, the decision of whether to set up a secret checkpoint depends at least in part on the impression that the police want to convey: a high-profile reminder to drivers of the risks of drunk driving (even checkpoints the location of which are identified in advance will almost invariably net a few drivers), or if the perceived need to catch as many inebriated drivers in a high-risk area is more important.
The best way to avoid legal trouble at a checkpoint, secret or otherwise, is to avoid behaviors that the police will be looking for if you encounter one. Don’t drink and drive, or ride with someone who has; and don’t transport things in your vehicle that might land you in legal trouble if a police officer happens to see or smell them. But if for some reason you are still cited or arrested at a DUI checkpoint, then your next critical need will be to retain an attorney who has the education, training, knowledge and experience to properly defend you. If you are arrested, contact the Hunsucker Legal Group for a free consultation at 405-231-5600.