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Your rights at a sobriety checkpoint

After an evening at your favorite sports bar or friend's house, nothing may kill the mood like rounding a corner and seeing a sobriety checkpoint. Even if you had one beer, you know the smell is on your breath and that police will notice it as soon as you answer their first question. So, what are your options?

In fact, you may have many questions about DWI checkpoints, including whether they are even legal in North Carolina. Understanding how checkpoints work and your rights when you approach one is key to the protection of those rights.

Are checkpoints legal?

Almost all states, including North Carolina, conduct sobriety checkpoints periodically. Many times, these happen after big events near stadiums and venues, or during holidays like St. Patrick's Day or New Year's Eve. DWI checkpoints set up roadblocks and stop random cars to check the drivers for evidence that they have been drinking. Officers simply ask what seem like innocent questions, but they are looking for signs such as slurred speech, jerking eye movements or the odor of alcohol on your breath.

This may seem like a violation of your Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, and you are not alone in that perception. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the matter after a lawsuit asking that very question made its way to the highest court. The judges agreed, though not unanimously, that the benefits of preventing drunk driving outweighed the minor inconvenience of a checkpoint.

The logistics of a checkpoint

In order to avoid becoming more than a minor inconvenience, agencies conducting checkpoints must follow certain guidelines, including:

  • Notifying the public that they will be enforcing checkpoints at a certain time
  • Establishing a sequence in which they will stop the vehicles
  • Stopping vehicles in that exact sequence and not selecting drivers by any other criteria, for example race or gender
  • Having sufficient reason to believe a driver has consumed alcohol before performing breath tests
  • Keeping each stop to a minimum length, about the time you would spend at a traffic light

The point of a sobriety checkpoint is not to arrest as many drivers as possible, but to deter those who may drive after drinking. Local agencies can justify continuing the roadblocks because studies show that these checkpoints help reduce alcohol-related accidents and fatalities by 18 to 24 percent.

If you have questions about your rights concerning sobriety checkpoints, or if you believe police violated your rights when they arrested you for DWI during a traffic stop, the advice and guidance of an attorney is vital. DWI penalties are a heavy burden you will carry for many years, and an attorney will make it a priority to help protect you from those consequences.

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Brannen & Walker Attorneys at law

141 Union Street S
Concord, NC 28025

Phone: 704-594-4128
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