If you have ever found yourself caught up in a vehicle checkpoint, then aside from feeling inconvenienced you may also wonder whether the time, expense and police manpower required to implement such checkpoints is really worthwhile? The answer to that question can depend heavily on what state you live in; in Oklahoma, the answer you are likely to receive from the law enforcement community is that checkpoints do make a positive difference when it comes to combating drunk driving as well as other crimes.
Take, for example, the results of a recent sobriety checkpoint in Tulsa, when during a four-and-a-half hour period police stopped more than 200 vehicles and tallied a score of 10 DUI arrests, 11 drug arrests, two arrests for driving stolen cars, 21 outstanding warrants, more than 200 traffic tickets and a haul of guns and even body armor.
When it comes to drunk driving, the legality of sobriety checkpoints from the perspective of the Federal government has already been decided in the affirmative by the U.S. Supreme Court, although some state courts have held that they violate individual rights under state constitutions (these checkpoints are legal under the Oklahoma state constitution). What you may not realize, though, is that the sobriety checkpoint is not the only type of checkpoint in which you can be arrested for DUI. There are several different kinds of checkpoints that police can use to justify stopping you while you are driving, and any of them can lead to a police officer concluding that you are driving under the influence.
Courts have recognized the legality of four checkpoint variations:
- Border patrol checkpoints
- Driver’s license checkpoints
- Sobriety checkpoints
- Informational checkpoints
What makes a checkpoint constitutionally valid is when it meets the criteria that courts have imposed to ensure that the intrusion into your privacy rights is offset by a compelling public interest coupled with a limited purpose for stopping your vehicle. So for example, enforcing immigration law and policy is a compelling public interest, as is the need to make sure that cars are properly registered and drivers properly licensed; even informational checkpoints — in which a police officer might stop vehicles to ask drivers and passengers if they have any information about a specific crime that has been committed — are constitutional as long as they do not turn into generalized “fishing expeditions” about non-specific criminal behavior.
But as the Tulsa checkpoint example above indicates, the initial reason for stopping you can quickly expand beyond the checkpoint’s initial, limited purpose, especially if the police officer sees or smells something that suggests you are engaged in some other illegal activity: if you are stopped at a driver’s license checkpoint and the officer sees an open container of alcohol, or if the officer smells marijuana smoke while stopping you at an informational checkpoint, or if during a search of your car incidental to a sobriety checkpoint in which he suspects you of DUI the officer finds a gun that you do not have a concealed carry permit for, all of these are ways that you can end up being cited or even arrested for something beyond the narrow purpose for establishing the checkpoint.
It may seem that federal and Oklahoma courts may have “stacked the deck” against you when it comes to finding ways to snare you via a vehicle checkpoint, but the fact is that police must diligently adhere to a number of legal requirements for any checkpoint to pass constitutional muster. The failure to observe even a single procedural protection of your right to privacy or your right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure can lead to any evidence against you being excluded from consideration under what is known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine.
It is not essential for you to understand all of the procedural requirements that make for a valid checkpoint; but if you have been charged with a crime as the result of being stopped at one, it is essential that you have legal defense counsel that knows well what these requirements are and can thoroughly investigate whether they were complied with. For your free consultation with the attorneys at the Hunsucker Legal Group, call 405-231-5600.