One of the situations is an inspection at sobriety checkpoints you can stumble across when having your behind-the-wheel practice or even taking your driving skills exam. If you don’t want to fail the road test or, what is more, to be arrested and charged, you need to understand what to expect. Here is our brief FAQ on the topic:
1. What Are Sobriety Checkpoints?
A sobriety checkpoint is a specific kind of roadblocks arranged on public roads and highways with the aim to run check-ups that allow determining whether drivers are sober or drunk. They serve to prevent driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs by detecting drivers who violate the traffic rules. These predefined locations are usually marked with specific signs to show drivers that there is an alcohol testing site ahead and that they need to be prepared for stopping and interaction with a police officer. In many cases, the checkpoints are used to carry out both sobriety and license inspections, at which point they are marked correspondingly. Thus, if you failed your driving test and didn’t obtain the license or you don’t have it on you, or it was suspended/revoked, you can be caught on the checkpoint and then charged even if you pass your sobriety test.
2. How Is the Sobriety Test Conducted?
When stopped at a sobriety checkpoint, a driver can be asked to undergo a field sobriety test that implies performing some physical tasks aimed to estimate the driver’s coordination. The tasks can include walking in a straight line, touching the tip of the nose by hand, following a moving object by eyes and so on. However, not each and every driver is asked to perform the test. Usually, officers start the check-up with asking for a driver’s license and registration, while speaking with a driver and observing his/her behavior. If a police officer feels that a driver behaves adequately, his/her speech is not slurred, there are no alcoholic drinks in the car, and no alcohol vapors are smelled, then the officer can let the driver pass without testing him/her.
On the other hand, even a sober driver can raise suspicions, if he/she looks and behaves nervously. You might be a learner driver with the permit, who failed the driver’s license test and thus acted dubiously, or you might be a naturally uncoordinated person, who finds it difficult to perform the above-mentioned physical tasks – anyway, a police officer can ask you to have a breathalyzer test just because he/she isn’t satisfied with your behavior.
3. What Is the Breathalyzer Test?
While performing physical tasks doesn’t allow for assessing driver’s condition effectively, this test is more fact-based since it deals with measuring blood alcohol levels. It is performed with the help of a portable device called breathalyzer – you blow air into it, and then the device shows the amount of alcohol in your breath. If it is higher than a legal limit, you can be lawfully accused of drunk driving, arrested and then charged according to your state laws. The legal limit across the United States is .08% BAC (blood alcohol content), while for drivers under 21 all states have a zero tolerance limit – you should learn this prior to taking your knowledge exam and scheduling your driving test.
4. Can a Driver Refuse to Take the Tests?
Basically, yes, but this depends on your local state laws. For example, in California, there are no penalties prescribed by the law for refusing to undergo the field sobriety test. Also, drivers can decline an offer to undergo the breath test, but only if:
- it is a pre-arrest test;
- a driver is over 21;
- a driver is not on probation for impaired driving.
However, if you refuse to undergo the tests, a police officer can still arrest you, provided he/she believes you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. After you are arrested, you cannot refuse to take the tests without consequences, which can come at a price higher than just failed driver knowledge test – up to the loss of your driver’s license and other penalties.
If you agree to undergo the tests, you should understand that their results can be used against you, though the tests are optional.
5. Do the Police Need Probable Cause to Stop a Driver at a Sobriety Checkpoint?
No, they don’t. This consideration was a stumbling block of litigation on the constitutionality of the checkpoints judged in the US Supreme Court. The judgment was in favor of the checkpoints, saying that this doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment and that random checks at the roadblocks don’t fall under the unreasonable searches and seizures prohibition. Thus, the officers of law enforcement agencies don’t need any probable cause or warrant to stop you for the sobriety inspection, though they need to follow certain rules to act legally.
6. What Are the Rules For Sobriety Checkpoints?
In fact, the rules can vary depending on a state, but there are some general requirements:
- Operational decisions have to be made by supervising officers, while the discretion of officers in the field has to be limited.
- Neutral mathematical selection criteria have to be used for stopping vehicles at the checkpoints (like one in five vehicles or five vehicles in a row out of ten).
- Locations for the checkpoints have to be reasonably selected (for example, on a section of a road associated with multiple DUI accidents).
- Necessary safety precautions have to be taken by officers in the field in order to avoid accidents associated with blocking a road.
- The checkpoints have to be clearly indicated to inform drivers in advance about the official stop ahead.
- The check-up has to take a minimum amount of time and drivers showing no signs of impaired driving must not be delayed, while for conducting sobriety and breath tests probable cause is required.
Now you can schedule your road test without worries since you know what to expect when you see a sign warning you about a sobriety checkpoint ahead. Stay safe on the road!