DUI Checkpoints: An End-Run Around the Constitution or a Necessary Public Safety Measure?

DUI or sobriety checkpoints have been legal in Tennessee since 1997.  To be legal, the checkpoint must be done pursuant to a plan which places explicit limits on the authority of the individual officers conducting the checkpoint.  In other words, police cannot pick and choose which cars to stop at a checkpoint.  Every car must be required to stop.  The public must also be given advance notice of the time and location of the checkpoint.  In other words, roving checkpoints are not allowed.  This is why you should check the local papers and news sources around the holidays for the times and locations of checkpoints.

DUI checkpoints have come under much scrutiny.  It is a fundamental rule of constitutional law that police must at least have a reason supported by specific and particular facts that a driver violated, is violating, or is about to violate a traffic law to stop a car.  With DUI checkpoints, police do not need this specific and particular reason to stop the cars that come through the checkpoint.  The police are allowed to force every car to come to a stop and then conduct a brief face-to-face encounter with the driver to see if there are any signs of intoxication.  If there are such signs, the police may conduct further investigation.

Courts have allowed DUI checkpoints out of the concern for the public safety.  Tennessee courts recognize the detection of drunk driving to be a compelling state interest.  In 2008, the State of Tennessee Strategic Highway Safety Plan reported that nearly 40% of traffic fatalities were alcohol related.  Tennessee courts however have declined to allow checkpoints primarily intended to detect drug trafficking or check for licenses.

Ever thought of turning your car around when you come upon a DUI checkpoint?  Depending on the circumstances (how you were driving, how close you came to the checkpoint, etc…), this may be enough to allow the police to stop your car.  If you do not cooperate with the officers conducting the roadblock, you could be arrested for disobeying the lawful commands of an officer.

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