Colorado DUI Checkpoints – Sobriety Stops – The Heat Is On Campaigns – Analyzed
by Colorado DUI Criminal Defense Lawyer H. Michael Steinberg
Introduction – Colorado DUI checkpoints have become more and more common as the state cracks down on drunk driving. Drivers stopped at checkpoints and found to be impaired are generally charged with Colorado DUI or DWAI Crimes
Colorado DUI checkpoints are also commonly referred to as:
DUI / DWAI / DUID Driver’s License Checkpoints, or just Sobriety Checkpoints, or Drunk Driving Sobriety Checkpoints, or DUI Roadblocks.
Are There Possibble Defenses To Colorado DUI Checkpoint Arrests and Prosecution?
If a Colorado driver is arrested for DUI or DWAI at a sobriety checkpoint, it may be possible to fight the charges in court. One reason is that the police at checkpoints typically don’t observe any “bad driving” (such as weaving) before they make contact with the driver. Therefore the prosecutor may have trouble proving that the person’s driving ability was really impaired.
In addition a Colorado DUI defense lawyer can sometimes challenge the validity of the checkpoint itself. If this challenge succeeds, it typically means the whole case will be dismissed.
Fighting a Colorado DUI case stemming from a checkpoint depends on an analysis of the check point itself and the current law and thats “complicaed.”
If the Colorado DUI checkpoint does not adhere to very specific legal requirements for Colorado roadblocks, the charge may be dismissed.
The most common Colorado legal defenses that apply to sobriety checkpoints include:
Supervising officers were not present or in charge of the roadblock,
There was no adequate warning of the upcoming checkpoint,
There was no available route for a driver to drive away from the sobriety checkpoint, and
A multitude of other Colorado DUI defenses may be available to fight your Colorado DUI charge because if you successfully fight the underlying DUI charge, the fact that the stop was at a checkpoint becomes irrelevant.
Colorado DUI Sobriety Checkpoint Penalties
The penalties for a Colorado DUI conviction are virtually the same whether your arrest originates at a DUI / driver’s license checkpoint or somewhere else. It’s the impaired driving that is being punished, not the manner in which you are caught.
In this article, our Colorado DUI defense attorneys1 explain the laws that regulate Colorado sobriety checkpoints by addressing the following:
What is a Colorado DUI Checkpoint?
A Colorado DUI checkpoint provides officers with a scheduled opportunity to screen drivers to determine whether or not they are under the influence. This is one of the exceptions to the rule that an officer must have probable cause to initiate a Colorado DUI investigation . And while the politically correct “stated” purpose of a DUI checkpoint is to deter drunk drivers
The truth is … it’s to try to arrest any alcohol impaired drivers.
The law enforcement agency that is operating the checkpoint will section off a portion of the road so that drivers ultimately merge into one or two lanes before coming to a stop. The officer asks the driver to roll down his/her window so that they can engage in a brief discussion. This dialogue allows the officer to evaluate whether he/she believes the driver may be driving under the influence.
Specifically, the officer is looking to see whether or not the driver fumbles when asked for his/her license and registration, and whether the officer
observes any alcoholic beverages, drugs or drug paraphernalia in the vehicle, or
observes slurred speech, red-watery eyes or any other signs of physical impairment.
If the officer believes that the driver is impaired, he/she will direct the suspect to an area to perform Colorado DUI field sobriety tests “FSTs”
At that point, a typical drunk driving investigation will ensue. At the conclusion of the investigation, the officer will immediately arrest the driver if he/she believes that the driver is driving under the influence of alcohol or driving under the influence of drugs “DUID” in violation of Colorado law.
And not only is the officer looking to see if the driver fumbles when looking for his/her driver’s license, the officer is also checking to see if the driver has a driver’s license. Drivers who are driving without a license in Colorado or who are driving on a suspended or revoked Colorado driver’s license may also be arrested.
But just because a driver is arrested at a DUI sobriety checkpoint…even if he/she actually was driving under the influence…does not mean that he/she will necessarily be convicted of the offense.
This is because experienced Colorado DUI defense attorneys know that if the officers do not follow strict rules and regulations with respect to these checkpoints, any arrests that they make will be considered unlawful. And if an arrest is unlawful, the subsequent charges will most likely be dismissed.
The Colorado Case of People V. Rister Sets the standard in Colorado DUI Checkpoint Cases
In 1985 the Colorado State Patrol was operating a sobriety checkpoint on a county highway. Rister – caught up in the roadblock challenged it as a violation of the fourth and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution and article II, section 7, of the Colorado Constitution.
The lower court ruled that the sobriety checkpoint was unconstitutional, and suppressed the evidence obtained as a result of the stop.
The Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and found that the sobriety checkpoint was legal.
The Colorado State Patrol (CSP) Sobriety Checkpoint
As each vehicle is contacted the trooper will approach the motorist and state “This is a Colorado State Patrol Sobriety Checkpoint set up to determine the sobriety of drivers.” The trooper asks for the driver’s license. If during this brief encounter the trooper perceives no evidence of alcohol impairment, the motorist is supposed to be allowed to proceed immediately, being assisted back into traffic by an officer.
The alleged purpose of a sobriety checkpoint is the deterrence/apprehension of DUI. If other types of violations or articulable suspicions of other violations are immediately discernible, those are also allowed to be investigated; …as a general rule, the encounter involving checking the driver’s license should be adequate to determine any evidence of alcohol impairment.
During the stop, the trooper is supposed to be alert for any articulable conditions normally associated with persons driving under the influence. These conditions would include, but not be limited to, odor of alcoholic beverage about the driver, slurred speech, flushed appearance, disorderly or unusual conduct, visual disorders and/or lack of muscular coordination.
In the event any condition or combination of conditions exist which give the trooper probable cause to believe the driver may be under the influence of alcohol, the driver may then be requested to perform certain psychomotor coordination tests and/or submit to a chemical test of either his blood or breath. If sufficient evidence of intoxication is then developed, the driver will be arrested.
The Fourth Amendment Applied to Sobriety Checkpoints
The fourth amendment, which is applicable to the states through the fourteenth amendment,  provides that:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized.
The state patrol’s stop of the defendant’s vehicle while brief, is still a “seizure” under the fourth amendment. Accordingly, it must be “reasonable” under the fourth amendment.
The United States Supreme Court Case of Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444, 110 S.Ct. 2481, 110 L.Ed.2d 412 (1990) sets the national standard on this issue:
The constitutionality of a sobriety check point was at issue.
Synopsis of Constitutional Rule of Law On Sobriety Checkpoints
The checkpoint program is consistent with the Fourth Amendment because “the balance of the State’s interest in preventing drunken driving, the extent to which this system can reasonably be said to advance that interest, and the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists who are briefly stopped, weighs in favor of the state program.”
Facts – The Michigan State Police established a sobriety checkpoint pilot program. It only went on for one day. “Under the guidelines, checkpoints would be set up at selected sites along state roads. All vehicles passing through a checkpoint would be stopped and their drivers briefly examined for signs of intoxication. In cases where a checkpoint officer detected signs of intoxication, the motorist would be directed to a location out of the traffic flow where an officer would check the motorist’s driver’s license and car registration and, if warranted, conduct further sobriety tests. Should the field tests and the officer’s observations suggest that the driver was intoxicated, an arrest would be made. All other drivers would be permitted to resume their journey immediately.”
The Respondents, licensed drivers in that the state of Michigan (the “Respondents”), filed suit to obtain declaratory and injunctive relief from subjection to the checkpoints. The Michigan Police Department agreed to postpone further implementation of the check points pending the outcome of the litigation. The trial court ruled that the program violated the Fourth Amendment. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed. The Michigan Supreme Court refused to hear this case.
Issue.”Whether a State’s use of highway sobriety checkpoints violates the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution?”
Held. The court first observed that the police department agrees there is a Fourth Amendment “seizure” when a vehicle is stopped at a checkpoint. Also, that the question becomes whether the stop is “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment. The majority went out of its way to point out, “[a]s pursued in the lower courts, the instant action challenges only the use of sobriety checkpoints generally. We address only the initial stop of each motorist passing through a checkpoint and the associated preliminary questioning and observation by checkpoint officers.” The court found that the appropriate test to be applied is the balancing test from [Brown v. Texas], which involves “balancing the state’s interest in preventing accidents caused by drunk drivers, the effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints in achieving that goal, and the level of intrusion on an individual’s privacy caused by the checkpoints.”
“No one can seriously dispute the magnitude of the drunken driving problem or the States’ interest in eradicating it. Media reports of alcohol-related death and mutilation on the Nation’s roads are legion. The anecdotal is confirmed by the statistical.” On the other hand, “the weight bearing on the other scale – the measure of the intrusion on motorists stopped briefly at sobriety checkpoints – is slight. [The Court] reached a similar conclusion as to the intrusion on motorists subjected to a brief stop at a highway checkpoint for detecting illegal aliens.
We see virtually no difference between the levels of intrusion on law-abiding motorists from the brief stops necessary to the effectuation of these two types of checkpoints, which to the average motorist would seem identical save for the nature of the questions the checkpoint officers might ask. The trial court and the Court of Appeals, thus, accurately gauged the ‘objective’ intrusion, measured by the duration of the seizure and the intensity of the investigation, as minimal.”
As to the subjective intrusion on individual drivers the majority observed, “[t]he ‘fear and surprise’ to be considered are not the natural fear of one who has been drinking over the prospect of being stopped at a sobriety checkpoint but, rather, the fear and surprise engendered in law-abiding motorists by the nature of the stop.”
“Here, checkpoints are selected pursuant to the guidelines, and uniformed police officers stop every approaching vehicle. The intrusion resulting from the brief stop at the sobriety checkpoint is for constitutional purposes indistinguishable from the checkpoint stops we upheld in [Martinez-Fuerte].”
The Michigan Court of Appeals inappropriately construed the effectiveness of the program. The majority observed “for purposes of Fourth Amendment analysis, the choice among such reasonable alternatives remains with the governmental officials who have a unique understanding of, and a responsibility for, limited public resources, including a finite number of police officers.”
Call us for help…
If you have additional questions about how Colorado DUI laws relate to sobriety checkpoints, or you would like to discuss your case confidentially with H. Michael Steinberg – please don’t hesitate to contact us.