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The Overlooked Ineffectiveness of Sobriety Checkpoints

Police have lots of ways of enforcing California's laws against driving under the influence (DUI). Some of them are better at detecting or deterring drunk drivers than others. Sobriety checkpoints, to the surprise of many, are among the worst. Further, they infringe on the privacy of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent drivers whenever the police run one.

Nevertheless, California uses them constantly, despite the fact that many other states have deemed they are unconstitutional because of their intrusiveness.

In this blog post, we'll examine the ineffectiveness of sobriety checkpoints. In the next, we'll explore why police can use them in California, but not in other states like Oregon.

What is a Sobriety Checkpoint?

Most Californians are aware of what a sobriety checkpoint is, and how it works. It bears repeating, though, that sobriety checkpoints require:

  • Numerous police officers to be on the scene,
  • All, or a substantial number, of drivers passing through to be indiscriminately pulled to the side of the road to be searched for signs of DUI, and
  • The police department to pay to advertise the checkpoint to the public.

Each of these factors makes a sobriety checkpoint ineffective.

Checkpoints: Costs to the General Public

Sobriety checkpoints take a lot of police officers to run them. They need to conduct searches for evidence of DUI violations quickly, or else the checkpoint will create a traffic jam worthy of rush hour in Los Angeles. 

However, because so many officers are at the sobriety checkpoint, that means they are not on the roads, elsewhere. A DUI checkpoint, therefore, makes it even less likely for a drunk driver to be detected if they don't stumble onto the checkpoint.

In fact, in 2008, California made much of the fact that sobriety checkpoints led to 5,000 arrests for DUI. However, this represented a mere 2.3% of the year's DUI arrests, and yet cost the state $14 million in federal grant money.

A sobriety checkpoint requires police to search for DUI evidence indiscriminately. This means they have to pull everyone over to the side of the road, or follow a specific pattern of stops that prevents officers from using their discretion on who to pull over.

The result: Hundreds of police officers waste their time testing stone cold sober drivers at the average checkpoint. If a sobriety checkpoint exists to detect drunk drivers, this is a terribly ineffective way of doing it.

The Costs of Advertising

In California, the public has to be made aware of a sobriety checkpoint before it can take place. This requires advertising which, needless to say, takes money. That advertising money can be used for other things – like education or rehabilitation programs – that would also help to reduce drunk driving in California. The National Institute of Justice has conducted extensive research into diversion programs, such as drug court, and found that such programs are incredibly effective at reducing recidivism, and significantly lowering costs.

John Campanella

I have been representing people accused of drunk driving since I began practicing in 1995. I went to my first Sacramento DUI conference that year and listened to great DUI attorneys like Ed Kuwatch AKA, “Fast Eddie” and Lawrence Taylor who motivated me to study and practice in this area of law.

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