St. Patrick’s Day is sometimes associated with people celebrating and reveling in the traditions of the holiday. Some people use this “happy-go-lucky” day to celebrate to excess. Law enforcement officers are all too aware of this, so in many cities, the police have begun to use sobriety checkpoints on nights when people are more likely to be driving under the influence. Since being introduced in the 1990’s, sobriety checkpoints have become a high-efficiency way for law enforcement to identify drivers of suspected DUIs. Many people who may know how to respond to a routine traffic stop aren’t familiar with what happens during a sobriety checkpoint. Knowing the purposes and procedures can help prevent you from making a costly mistake.
Sobriety checkpoints involve law enforcement setting up a roadblock. These checkpoints are usually set up in areas that are not visible, until the driver has no choice but to proceed through the checkpoint–for example, around a sharp turn in the road at with reduced visibility of what’s ahead. Every driver who passes the roadblock is stopped and approached by a police officer. The police officer will typically ask a few questions about where the driver has been, whether the driver has been drinking, and so on. These questions can be interpreted as trying to elicit a confession of driving under the influence. If the officer believes the driver is under the influence, the driver will be asked to pull over to the side of the road to complete a field sobriety test. If this point is reached, the encounter will proceed like a standard traffic stop involving a suspected DUI.
Law enforcement will often announce they will be setting up a checkpoint ahead of time–usually a time when they expect a large number of DUIs, such as during a holiday or after a sporting event. Be aware: these sobriety checkpoints can be set up without the public being informed ahead of time. While some people may feel that these checkpoints are intrusive or overreaching, 38 states, including Louisiana, currently conduct sobriety checkpoints. Whether or not a state conducts sobriety checkpoints depends upon that state’s interpretation of state or Constitutional law. In Louisiana, sobriety checkpoints have been upheld as legal under the state constitution.
Keep in mind that sobriety checkpoints check for more than just people driving under the influence. People will be cited, or even arrested, for expired license plates, windows that are tinted beyond the legal limit, and other violations.
What should you do if you have approached a sobriety checkpoint? Some people, rightly or wrongly, fear they will be arrested and will attempt to turn around and head in the other direction. Law enforcement officers anticipate this and will set up checkpoints in locations that are impossible to turn away from without committing a traffic violation, like an illegal U-turn. They will carefully monitor all drivers who approach the checkpoint. You can be sure that breaking a traffic law to avoid a checkpoint will get you pulled over. Additionally, some states have laws that make it illegal to avoid a police roadblock. Period.
When you reach the checkpoint, follow the same common sense guidelines that apply to any traffic stop: Make sure you have your license and registration ready. As always, stay calm and respectful. If, for any reason, you have had any number of alcoholic drinks, assume you will be pulled over and given a field sobriety test. At this point, it is best to approach this encounter as you would any other traffic stop where you have been suspected of driving under the influence. In the best-case scenario (one where you are not under the influence), the encounter will be brief. The officer will ask to see your license and registration and ask you a few questions. You will then be free to go.
It is understandably stressful for anyone to go through a sobriety checkpoint, especially when you are not aware it has been scheduled. Unexpectedly coming across several police vehicles with lights flashing and officers pulling over everyone can make even the most law-abiding citizen nervous. Even so…it is your responsibility as a driver to comply with state law. You also have a responsibility to yourself to maintain a courteous, calm demeanor, and approach the checkpoint with full knowledge of your rights and responsibilities.