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Sobriety Checkpoints And Your Rights In North Carolina

Have you ever had a night out where you've consumed alcoholic beverages, only to come upon a DWI checkpoint set up by the police? Perhaps you felt confident getting behind the wheel, but as soon as you saw the flashing lights of the police vehicle and the line of cars getting random checks for sobriety your panic set in.

It is not unheard of for law enforcement officers in the state of North Carolina to set up sobriety checkpoints without notice. That anxiety you feel as you sit in line, awaiting your turn to see if you will be one of the motorists chosen to undergo a test for alcohol-impaired driving leads you to consider several important questions.

  • What are the legal ramifications if I am caught driving while intoxicated?
  • Have I put myself at financial, professional, or personal risk if I do not pass a sobriety check?
  • Was it worth getting behind the wheel tonight when I could have endangered myself or someone else on the road?

The Law Offices of J.M. Kotzker P.C. believe it's important for drivers to understand their rights and to learn about the North Carolina laws surrounding sobriety checkpoints.

The Impact Of Drunk Driving

We are all taught that there are major consequences to drunk driving. Yet, every single day in America someone drives under the influence, resulting in alcohol-related crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that over 900 people a day are injured in drunk driving crashes, with 32 people a day dying as a result of drunk drivers' actions. That's a drunk driving fatality taking place every 45 minutes on American roads.

NHTSA's reports cite that 2 out of every 3 people will be affected by drunk driving in their lifetime. Whether it's due to death, injury, or arrests, driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol has repercussions that last a lifetime.

NC DWI checkpoints

At DWI checkpoints, law enforcement officers will detain and question drivers. If an officer suspects that a driver is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they will administer a sobriety check. Depending on the result of sobriety and the driver's willingness to undergo the test, a driver may be further detained or arrested.

When law enforcement performs checks based on suspicion of DUI or DWI, a driver may be asked to undergo the following types of tests:

  • Field sobriety: law enforcement asks the driver to perform a series of actions that test balance, coordination, and awareness. This is used to evaluate the driver's mental and physical abilities and to determine if they are intoxicated.
  • Blood: a blood test is used to determine blood alcohol concentration levels (BAC). In NC it is illegal to drive with a BAC of 0.08% or higher.
  • Breathalyzer: a handheld device is used to determine a range of BAC.
  • Urine: due to privacy issues, law enforcement is less likely to administer a urine test, but if given the choice, a urine test for BAC is easier for defense attorneys to discredit in court.

Are Sobriety Checkpoints Legal in North Carolina?

In the state of North Carolina, it is legal for police officers to perform sobriety checks on motorists. North Carolina State Statute Section 20-16.3A outlines the constitutionality and circumstances of the law.

In order for law enforcement to adhere to state laws' rules on sobriety checkpoints, they must:

  • Be performed at random
  • Have stated the purpose
  • Announce a predetermined location

The Rights of Law Enforcement Officers

Even though it is legal for the police to perform DWI checkpoints, you as the driver still have rights that must be respected in order for them to hold you accountable in a court of law. In addition, law enforcement agencies also have the right to perform such checkpoints as long as they follow the statutes predetermined by the state, and they also have rights as officers to perform certain actions.

  • No warrant is needed to search your car: if a police officer sees drugs in your car, including prescription or over-the-counter medication, they do not need a warrant to conduct a search.
  • No reasonable suspicion is needed to perform a checkpoint: police officers may detain drivers at checkpoints without reason; however, they are not allowed to detain a driver if they are suspicious another crime was committed. For instance, if police believe there is stolen property in the vehicle, they must have reasonable suspicion to use the checkpoint to conduct that search.
  • They may detain you if there is reasonable suspicion: although police do not need reasonable suspicion to set up a checkpoint, they do need to be suspicious you are intoxicated while driving in order to detain you. If a law enforcement officer asks you to pull over to an inspection area because they reasonably believe you are guilty of consuming alcohol or drugs, they have the right to do so for a brief period to conduct their tests.

The Check Must be at Random

Law enforcement officials cannot pull you over and perform a sobriety check without a reason; in fact, if a checkpoint stop is not performed at random, officers can be accused of criminal or racial profiling.

At a sobriety checkpoint, every car must be stopped or a system should be followed, where every 5 or every 10 vehicles are stopped.

The Checkpoint Must Have a Stated Purpose

Law enforcement officials cannot use sobriety checkpoints as a reason to search for evidence of just any potential crime. Police are required to have a purpose for stopping motorists at checkpoints, and that purpose cannot change to theft, for example, when their purpose is to randomly assess drivers for signs of intoxication.

The Location Must be Announced

No police officer has the right to set up a checkpoint for sobriety at any time or place. North Carolina law requires law enforcement to announce the location of sobriety checkpoints prior to them being conducted. In addition, the checkpoint should be clearly visible with blue flashing police lights to alert drivers of the stop.

A Law Enforcement Officer Can Track You Down if You Avoid the DWI Roadblock

If a police officer notices you leave a DWI checkpoint line or turn around and maneuver in a way that causes suspicion, they have a right to follow you. Upon pulling you over, they may inquire as to why you left the sobriety checkpoint as you did.

Officers Can Arrest or Give Citations for Other Traffic Offenses

Despite not being legally able to outright look for the potential of other crimes or offenses taking place, law enforcement can cite violations they come upon. For instance, if your car is stopped based on the random, pre-determined checkpoint procedure, and when asked for your license the officer sees that your license is suspended, they can issue a violation.

Your Legal Rights At A Sobriety Checkpoint

Your rights under the United States Constitution protect you from certain violations. At a sobriety checkpoint, you are required to produce a license and registration; however, you are not required in any way to interact with the officers beyond providing those documents.

Checkpoint Refusal

Law enforcement may offer to administer a sobriety test, but you have the legal right to refuse such a test. Often, refusal of sobriety tests results in an arrest because it is seen as an admission of guilt; however, your refusal to take the test cannot be used against you in court.

Common Defense Strategies For Those Accused At A Sobriety Checkpoint

There are a number of approaches to building a defense case when you are charged with a DWI violation. Every person's case is different and will depend on the specifics of each individual's experience.

To discuss your case, call our DWI defense attorneys in Raleigh, but to get an idea of the types of common approaches used to defend DWI arrests, here are some examples:

  • Lack of suspicion or probable cause
  • Cross-examination of the arresting officer
  • Mistakes made by law enforcement
  • Challenging the legality of the checkpoint
  • Challenging the BAC results

While this is not a comprehensive list of our legal approaches, it can give an idea as to the effectiveness of obtaining legal representation for your DWI case.

Contact The Law Office Of J.M. Kotzker, P.C. If You've Been Stopped At A Sobriety Checkpoint In North Carolina 

If you are facing a DWI charge or believe you are a victim of an unconstitutional sobriety check on behalf of law enforcement, contact the Law Offices of J.M. Kotzker, P.C. for a free consultation.

Our Raleigh DWI lawyers are here to guide you through the legal process, answer your questions, and provide representation if you are facing criminal charges due to alcohol-impaired driving. Call us today at (919) 439-5104 or fill out the form below so we can help you through the process of your case.