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Why are sobriety checkpoints legal in some, but not all, states?

On Behalf of | Dec 6, 2022 | Criminal Defense

If you travel out of state this holiday season to see family and friends, it is possible that you could encounter a sobriety checkpoint. These checkpoints aim to identify and arrest drunk drivers. But what makes them legal in the first place and are they permitted in Rhode Island?

What happens at a sobriety checkpoint?

At a sobriety checkpoint, police are permitted to stop random motorists or all motorists to determine if they are driving under the influence. Officers may perform a breath test if they have reasonable suspicion that the motorist whom they stopped is under the influence. Sobriety checkpoints must be highly publicized ahead of time, so motorists are aware of them.

Sobriety checkpoints are meant to keep impaired drivers off the road. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that states that permit sobriety checkpoints see a reduction in driving under the influence, and studies have consistently confirmed this.

Still, sobriety checkpoints may seem unfair or even illegal, and not all states permit them. Why are sobriety checkpoints legal in some states and illegal in other states?

Are sobriety checkpoints legal?

The U.S. Supreme Court took up the issue of sobriety checkpoints in 1990. At issue was whether sobriety checkpoints violated the Fourth Amendment because they constituted an unnecessary search and seizure.

The Court ruled that sobriety checkpoints were permissible because there was a significant public safety interest in stopping impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel and causing crashes. Sobriety checkpoints were made legal at a federal level, but states were still permitted to outlaw them.

Rhode Island does not permit sobriety checkpoints on the grounds that they violate the Rhode Island Constitution. It is one of only 11 states to prohibit sobriety checkpoints.

So, if you travel out of state this holiday season, keep in mind that you could encounter a sobriety checkpoint. And if you are stopped in Rhode Island by police who believe you are driving under the influence, you will want to determine if the stop was constitutional.