Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib

Navigating DUI Checkpoints in California: What Every Driver Should Know


If you’ve ever driven on a major holiday in California, there’s a decent chance you’ve encountered signs warning about DUI checkpoints. These law enforcement actions are intended to discourage drunk driving and keep dangerous drivers off the road. However, they’re not perfect. 

If a checkpoint is not operated correctly, it could violate your constitutional rights. Here’s what you need to know about these checkpoints, your rights, and how to defend yourself if you have been charged with a DUI, drug crime, or other violation at a DUI checkpoint.

Definition and Purpose of DUI Checkpoints in California

A DUI checkpoint, also known as a sobriety stop or checkpoint, is a temporary roadblock set up by law enforcement to identify people driving under the influence (DUI). California is one of 38 states that permit police to operate these stops. 

Typically, these events occur on major holidays or other dates when intoxicated driving is expected to spike. There are three major objectives for successful checkpoints:

  • Prevention: By identifying intoxicated drivers, these operations prevent accidents by taking them off the roads. 
  • Visibility: Checkpoints are highly visible, reminding people that driving under the influence has consequences.
  • Deterrence: By being highly visible, checkpoints may help reduce overall intoxicated driving rates by deterring possible offenders now and in the future.

While these are noble goals, a poorly run checkpoint can cause more legal problems than it solves by violating your rights. 

Typical Process and Procedures at DUI Checkpoints

Checkpoints walk a fine line of legality in California. According to the landmark California Supreme Court ruling in Ingersoll v. Palmer, they need to be carefully designed, or they may violate your rights to freedom from discrimination and illegal search and seizure. 

As a result, well-run sobriety stops are typically structured similarly. 

  • Notification: All checkpoints must be advertised clearly, well before the scheduled date, or they may be considered illegal searches.
  • Location: The operation must be in a safe area with room to pull people over. This usually means along downtown streets near bars, often close to on- or off-ramps. 
  • Association: The operation should be obviously associated with the police, so there’s no doubt about whether it is an official law enforcement action. It typically involves flashing police lights, orange traffic cones, and officially uniformed officers. 
  • Duration: Operations cannot last indefinitely. Similarly, people who are pulled over cannot be held for excessive periods. The checkpoint must be temporary, usually a few hours at most, and individual stops should not last longer than necessary.
  • Nondiscrimination: Officers cannot discriminate when deciding which drivers to pull over. They must have reasonable suspicion before stopping someone. 

As you approach a checkpoint, traffic cones usually narrow the road to one lane, creating a single line of cars. Once you reach the front of the line, you’ll be instructed to roll down your window, and a uniformed officer will ask you some questions. If they identify signs of intoxication or another crime, they will instruct you to pull forward and to the side; otherwise, you’ll get to drive on unimpeded. 

If you’re told to pull over, the rest of the process looks like a normal traffic stop. You may be subject to field sobriety tests and breathalyzer tests. You may also be ordered to go to the police station for more in-depth drug testing. Meanwhile, other officers may run background searches and license inspections on you to identify outstanding warrants or other crimes. 

Legal Rights and Obligations of Drivers at DUI Checkpoints

In California, you cannot refuse to cooperate with a sobriety checkpoint. These operations are treated like other traffic stops; failing to cooperate once you are stopped at a checkpoint is considered a violation. You must cooperate with sobriety tests and other orders during the stop or risk losing your license.

Still, while sobriety checkpoints can be nerve-wracking, it’s important to remember you also have rights. Knowing your rights during a stop can help you avoid unjust charges. While you have to cooperate with tests, you do not have to consent to a search of your vehicle. You can say no if asked whether the officer can search your car. You may also refuse to unlock locked compartments like your glovebox and trunk. However, if officers inform you they will search your vehicle, you do not have the right to stop them. 

Additionally, you have the right to freedom from unreasonable detainment. If you remain pulled over for a long time, you can always ask whether you are being detained. If the answer is yes, you can ask why. Otherwise, you may be free to go.

Examples of Unlawful Sobriety Stops

If you are charged with a DUI or other crime at a checkpoint, your charges may be invalidated by unlawful behavior by the arrested officers. Examples of rights violations at DUI checkpoints include:

  • You were pulled over without probable cause. If you’re required to pull over without a reason, any evidence of a crime from that stop may be inadmissible in court. 
  • The officers searched your car without probable cause or consent. Similarly, any evidence found in an unlawful search cannot be used against you.
  • You were not informed of your rights after being detained. If you are arrested for any crime, you must be notified of your rights, including the right to remain silent and to speak to an attorney. Otherwise, your testimony is inadmissible as well.

Talk to an Experienced DUI Lawyer About Your Checkpoint Charges

DUI checkpoints are legal in California but must follow strict guidelines, or any resulting charges may be dropped. You can fight back if you’ve been charged with a crime at a sobriety checkpoint near Redwood City. The first step is to talk to an experienced California DUI attorney like those at the Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib. Reach out today to discuss how we can defend you and fight to have your DUI charges dropped.