DWI checkpoints are used in several of the states across the country. The Supreme Court has held that DWI checkpoints are constitutional, and therefore, they are consistently used. Several advocates for the continued use of DWI checkpoints focus in on their effectiveness of deterring people from driving drunk.

New York’s most recent DWI checkpoint that was “newsworthy” was a checkpoint set up outside the Yankees stadium last month. New York consistently uses DWI checkpoints as part of a larger scheme to crack down on drunk driving throughout the state. However, North Carolina is making news with one of their DWI checkpoints. The Charlotte Observer reported that at one of their DWI checkpoints in North Charlotte the “Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department charged 72 drivers with DWI and other traffic offenses.”

· “Ten people were arrested on DWI charges”
· “Three drivers were charged with drug offenses”
· “Seventeen were cited for driving with a revoked license”
· “Two no insurance”
· “Three open container of alcohol”
· “Twenty four other traffic charges (tags, inspections, etc…)”
· “One Concealed Weapon Charges”
· “Seven warrants”

The effectiveness of this DWI checkpoint is encouraging other states to increase their DWI checkpoints. With summer just around the corner, it is likely that citizens of New York will be seeing an increase of DWI checkpoints. Protect yourself by finding alternatives to driving on sunny days you know you may be enjoying alcoholic beverages, whether it is by car or boat!

New York’s DWI Laws to be Aware Of

  • Driving While Intoxicated (DWI)- Blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% or higher.
  • Aggravated DWI: BAC of 0.18% or higher
  • Driving While Ability Impaired (DWAI)
  • DWAI by alcohol: BAC 0.06-0.07%
  • DWAI by use of drug other than alcohol
  • DWAI by use of drug and alcohol
  • Boating While Intoxicated (BWI): BAC of 0.08% or higher
  • Boating While Ability Impaired by Alcohol: BAC 0.06% to 0.07%
  • Boating While Ability Impaired by the use of a drug that is not alcohol
  • Refusal of a chemical test in DWI: A motorist who refuses to submit to a chemical test (normally a test of breath, blood or urine) will suffer a revocation of his or her driver’s license for at least one year and will have to pay a civil penalty of at least $750 to the Department of Motor Vehicles
  • Refusing of a chemical test in: A boater who refuses to submit to a chemical test (normally a test of breath or blood) will suffer a revocation of his or her boating privileges for at least six months and will have to pay a civil penalty of at least $200.

Are DUI Checkpoints Legal?

Federal and State Courts have held sobriety checkpoints to be constitutional, with certain limitations. In the case of Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz (1990), the United States Supreme Court held that sobriety checkpoints are consistent with the Fourth Amendment. The Court used a balancing standard from the case Brown v. Texas (1979) to reach this determination. This standard considers “balancing the state’s interest in preventing accidents caused by drunk drivers, the effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints in achieving that goal, and the level of intrusion on an individual’s privacy caused by the checkpoints.”

The Supreme Court decided that the State’s interest in preventing alcohol related accidents justifies a check point’s intrusion upon a citizen’s fourth amendment rights. It is worth noting that this Supreme Court decision was not unanimous, and far from it. The Justice’s decision was split 5-4.

Additionally, because public safety and motor vehicle activity is a right and power held by state governments, not federal, the Supreme Court deferred to individual states to determine whether checkpoints are legal under their own state constitutions.

As you would expect, U.S. states are divided over whether sobriety checkpoints are legal. In fact, sobriety checkpoints are actually illegal in 11 states; and New York is not one of them. Despite their illegality in 11 states, law enforcement within those states have found ways to circumvent the law and hold sobriety checkpoints under a different name. Some states call them license checkpoints, while others call them insurance or seatbelt checkpoints, etc.

Recent court cases have put restrictions on the scope of such checkpoints. In the case of City of Indianapolis v. Edmond (2000), this time in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court found that checkpoints can violate the Fourth Amendment if they are not for the sole purpose of checking for sobriety.

This case established that a sobriety checkpoint is only constitutional if law enforcement can (1) prove in open court that the checkpoint is for the sole purpose of a sobriety stop and (2) a policymaking official in the police department has validated that it was solely for that purpose, through sworn testimony.

In New York, additional protections exist to further determine a sobriety checkpoint’s constitutionality. In People v. Scott (1984), the court established criteria for a checkpoint to be constitutional, including:

  1. It does not intrude, to an impermissible degree, upon the privacy of motorists approaching the checkpoint;
  2. It has to be maintained in accordance with a uniform procedure which affords little discretion to operating personnel; and
  3. Adequate precautions as to safety, lighting and fair warning of the existence of the checkpoint have to be in operation.

Several New York cases, such as People v. Richmond (1997), People v. Smith (1996) and People v. Holley (1993), also make it clear that procedures and protocols for checkpoints have to be in writing.

Even though courts have found sobriety checkpoints to be constitutional, there is definitely grey area and room for interpretation on a case-by-case basis. It is even possible that you, or someone you know, has been stopped at a sobriety check point that was improperly conducted. Knowing your rights as a United States citizen will help ensure that you and those you love are protected under your state and federal constitutions.

DWI Cases Thrown Out after Illegal Checkpoints

A Queens Criminal Court judge has dismissed a DWI case after finding New York police set up an illegal checkpoint.  Judge David M. Hawkins dismissed DWI charges against a New York man who was arrested in 2011, following a stop at a police checkpoint. According to reports, NYPD officers set up a checkpoint on a service road near Flushing in an attempt to nab drunk drivers.  However, Judge Hawkins’ decision rules that the officers failed to implement certain requirements when conducting the checkpoint, thus violating the motorist’s constitutional rights.

Checkpoints usually require vehicles to slow down or stop so police can check for intoxicated drivers.  The law dictates how police can construct these checkpoints. Given constitutional protections against unwarranted searches and seizures, police checkpoints must follow strict guidelines to protect drivers’ rights.  However, in the case before Judge Hawkins, the police claimed that the checkpoint was not a checkpoint at all, but rather “step out surveillance.” On August 8, 2011, police were standing on the side of the service road shining flashlights into cars, actively searching for violations.  While doing so, the police stopped a driver who had objects hanging from his rearview mirror.  Following the stop, police arrested the driver on suspicion of drunk driving. The driver was later charged with a DWI, leading to the case being appealed and placed before Judge Hawkins. 

Whether the police activity during the 2011 arrest was a checkpoint was the central issue. Attorneys for the police argued that the arrest was the result of “step out surveillance,” not a DWI checkpoint.  If that were indeed the case, then the surveillance would not be subject to the same restrictions as checkpoints.  Attorneys for the defendant argued that the manner in which the police were conducting these searches made this a checkpoint.  Judge Hawkins agreed with the defense and dismissed the case.  This was just one (1) of five (5) DWI cases dismissed due to unconstitutional checkpoints in New York.  All five (5) cases were dismissed between 2012 and 2014 and centered on similar police tactics.

Lawyers for the defendants in each case argued that the police activity constituted a DWI checkpoint, and that police failed to follow the appropriate procedures for these checkpoints when arresting the defendants.  One such required procedure is that police must clearly mark checkpoints to indicate to drivers that they are entering into a checkpoint.  The police failed to do this in each of these five (5) DWI cases.

DWI checkpoints have raised constitutional questions for years.  The United States Supreme Court, as well as New York courts, has held that checkpoints are permitted.  However, police must follow certain requirements when establishing these checkpoints so that the impact on drivers’ constitutional rights is as minimal as possible.  Protecting a driver’s rights during a checkpoint and any subsequent arrest and criminal case is extremely important, and is required by the Federal and New York State Constitutions.  The best way to ensure your rights are protected in this way is to hire an experienced DWI attorney who understands the law.

The exclusive purpose of this article is educational and it is not intended as either legal advice or a general solution to any specific legal problem. Corporate offices for Nave DWI Defense Attorneys are located at 432 N. Franklin Street, Suite 80, Syracuse, NY 13204; Telephone No.: 1-866-792-7800. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. Attorney Advertising.