DUI Checkpoints and the Fourth Amendment


An encounter at a DUI checkpoint between a college student and a police officer in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is gaining national attention and sparking much conversation around water coolers about the constitutional validity of DUI checkpoints (alternatively known as sobriety checkpoints). The video of the encounter has amassed over 3 million views on YouTube as of the time of this blog post. The video can be found at here.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which is incorporated into Article I, Section 7 of Tennessee's state constitution, guarantees American citizens the right to "be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Furthermore, "general warrants" are prohibited by the state and federal constitutions. General warrants allow officers to search suspected places without probable cause, and to seize persons not named in the warrant, whose offenses are not particularly described and supported by evidence.

In State v. Downey, the Supreme Court of Tennessee concluded that a sobriety checkpoint, although a seizure that is not necessarily based on probable cause, can be a reasonable seizure under the Tennessee Constitution. 945 S.W.2d 102, 104 (Tenn. 1997). In order to remain constitutional, the checkpoint must have predetermined operational guidelines that minimize the risk of arbitrary intrusion on individuals and limit the discretion of law enforcement officers at the scene. Id. In justifying this ruling, Tennessee's highest court recognized the state's "compelling interest" in detecting and deterring drivers who are under the influence of drugs. Id at 107. To determine whether there existed a compelling interest, the court used a balancing test to weigh the public interest in safe roads against an individual's Fourth Amendment interests. Id. That balancing test was borrowed from the United States Supreme Court. In Camara v. Municipal Court, the nation's highest court used three factors to determine whether a law could favor the public interest over individual constitutional protections: the public interest to be achieved, the ability to achieve the public interest, and the invasion caused to the citizen's privacy. 387 U.S. at 534.

The consensus among courts seems to be that the public interest in less hazardous roads outweighs relatively minor inconveniences for drivers to a degree large enough to justify a prima facie (on its face) violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court has pointed out that more people have died as a result of driving under the influence than from all the wars fought in United States history. Michigan v. Sitz, 496 U.S. at 456 (1990).

What can police officers do at DUI checkpoints? They are only allowed to engage a driver enough to make a determination as to whether the driver is drunk or not. This includes quick conversation, smelling any odor coming out of a car or on the driver's breath, and visual inspection of the driver's face.

As of now DUI checkpoints are constitutional but there are still many scenarios which take place which can invalidate one or more of the actions taken by officers during their execution of DUI checkpoints. Such as the amount of time you are detained and what types of questions you are asked can make a difference in your specific DUI case. So if you have been charged with DUI or other driving related offenses as a result of a DUI checkpoint it is important for you to contact an experienced DUI attorney today. To protect your rights or learn how we can help your specific case, please feel free to contact the experienced Hamblen County DUI attorneys at The Bowlin Law Firm today.