Nashville DUI Lawyers Explain the Constitutionality of DUI Checkpoints

Even to non-lawyers, DUI checkpoints appear to be a blatant violation of our 4th Amendment rights. It is a stop without probable cause, so why is it permitted? How is it not a violation of our constitutional rights? The reality is that it IS a violation of the 4th Amendment, but some violations are permitted under the appropriate circumstances. Here’s why…

The facts surrounding the case that answered this question began in the mid 1980’s in Michigan. The State police set up a check-point. Citizens filed suit (Michigan v. Sitz) seeking an order precluding the state police from using DUI Checkpoints as a means to curb drinking and driving. They argued that it was a blatant violation of the 4th Amendment and that generally, DUI checkpoints are ineffective in preventing drinking and driving. The state trial and appellate courts agreed, declaring that although the state had a legitimate interest in preventing drinking and driving, the DUI checkpoints were a substantial intrusion which was largely ineffective and the legitimate interest of the state in preventing drinking and driving was outweighed by the substantial intrusion by the state and its violation of the 4th Amendment.

Of course, the state appealed – to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court had a different view. The Court decided that the state court had misinterpreted portions of the law and misapplied it to the facts of this case. They ultimately decided there was no question there was a legitimate state interest in preventing drinking and driving (pointing to empirical data showing that at least 25,000 deaths annually are attributable to drinking and driving) and that the 4th Amendment was intended to preclude the government from generating fear and surprise with law abiding citizens – that the natural fear generated by drinking and driving (as the state court decided) was not the type the 4th Amendment was intended to protect citizens.

The state court’s decision was overturned and the effect was the increased use of DUI checkpoints all over the country, including Tennessee. This case does not stand, however, for the proposition that all DUI checkpoints are constitutional.

In 1997 the Tennessee Supreme Court set out a three prong test in State v. Downey to determine whether a DUI checkpoint complied with the 4th amendment. The first two prongs are always satisfied – the critical question always boils down to the degree and reasonableness of the officer’s intrusion during the stop. For example, a DUI checkpoint does not permit an officer to indefinitely detain someone. Nor would it permit a search of the entire vehicle, or perhaps even a person. The US Supreme Court decision in Sitz stood for the simple proposition that DUI checkpoints are not invalid per se. In Tennessee however, courts must also look at the severity of the interference with an individual’s liberty. The average stop in the Sitz case was about 25 seconds – and the court found that reasonable. But, what if the average stop was 5 minutes? 10 minutes? 1 hour? There are certainly limits to a DUI checkpoint, but provided officers comply with the court’s decision in Downey, the checkpoints are valid. What are the requirements the Tennessee court provides for in the Downey case?

Check it out in our next DUI law article.

This blog addresses a common question and is an example of just one legal issue which could arise with a DUI charge in Tennessee. If you’ve been arrested in Nashville or a surrounding county and are facing a DUI charge, contact one of our DUI attorneys today to discuss your case.


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