DWI Checkpoints Must Meet Constitutional and Statutory Requirements

DWI CheckpointIf you have been driving on Charlotte’s roads for any length of time, you may have been stopped at a DWI checkpoint. If you have been stopped at a DWI checkpoint, you may have wondered if law enforcement officers are really allowed to conduct such stops. The truth is, law enforcement agencies can perform checkpoints to detect violations of North Carolina’s motor vehicle laws. However, while the laws give police the ability to stop motor vehicles at a DWI checkpoint, the checkpoint must meet certain constitutional and statutory requirements to be considered lawful. If these constitutional and statutory requirements are not met, any charges that are brought against you as a result of being stopped at an unlawful DWI checkpoint may be dismissed.

Constitutional Requirements for DWI Checkpoints

When determining whether a DWI checkpoint meets the necessary constitutional requirements set out by the United States Supreme Court, courts must engage in a two-prong analysis; that is, for a checkpoint to be considered lawful it must, first, have a valid primary programmatic purpose, and second, be considered reasonable. Let’s look at each of these prongs in turn.

Does the DWI Checkpoint Have a Valid Primary Programmatic Purpose?

As mentioned above, the first step in determining if a checkpoint is constitutional is to see if it has a valid primary programmatic purpose. In prior cases, the Court has specifically ruled that a checkpoint has a valid primary programmatic purpose if the purpose of the checkpoint is any of the following:

  • Detecting impaired driving
  • Detecting license and registration violations
  • To gather information about a recently committed crime

On the other hand, the Court has ruled that general crime control is not a valid primary programmatic purpose.

If the primary programmatic purpose of the checkpoint does not fall into one of the categories above, courts will often look to other evidence to determine the primary programmatic purpose of the checkpoint. This evidence may include, but is not limited to, any of the following:

  • Officers’ testimony
  • Statements in the checkpoint plan
  • How the checkpoint was conducted
  • Presence of a mobile breath alcohol testing lab
  • Officers’ normal duties outside the checkpoint

Is the DWI Checkpoint Reasonable?

If the checkpoint has a valid primary programmatic purpose, the second step in determining if a DWI checkpoint is constitutional is to see if it is reasonable under the balancing test articulated in Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47 (1979). That is, the court must weigh the public’s interest in the checkpoint against the individual’s Fourth Amendment privacy interest, considering the following:

  • The gravity of the public interest served by the checkpoint
  • The extent to which the checkpoint advances that interest, and
  • The severity of the checkpoint’s interference with individual liberty

Ultimately, if the scale tips in favor of the public interest, the checkpoint is reasonable and thus constitutional.

Statutory Requirements for DWI Checkpoints

Not only must checkpoints meet the constitutional requirements laid out above, but checkpoints that are designed to determine compliance with North Carolina’s traffic laws must also meet certain statutory requirements laid out in the North Carolina General Statutes (N.C.G.S.). These statutory requirements mainly concern the following three primary issues. 

  • Patterns used to stop vehicles and request information from drivers. A law enforcement agency conducting a checkpoint must designate in advance both the pattern for (1) stopping vehicles and (2) requesting drivers that are stopped to produce drivers license, registration, or insurance information. It also should be noted that individual officers do not have discretion to deviate from the designated patterns and the patterns designated by the law enforcement agency shall not be based on a particular vehicle type, except that the pattern may designate any type of commercial motor vehicle.
  • Written policies regarding the patterns. ​While the pattern itself does not need to be in writing, a law enforcement agency conducting a DWI checkpoint must operate under a written policy that provides guidelines for the designated patterns mentioned above. This policy may be either the agency’s own policy, or if the agency does not have a written policy, it may be the policy of another law enforcement agency, but such must be stated in writing. Additionally,the policy may include contingency provisions for altering either pattern if actual traffic conditions are different from those anticipated. However, the policy shall not give any individual officer discretion as to which vehicle is stopped or, of the vehicles stopped, which driver is requested to produce drivers license, registration, or insurance information.
  • Notification to the public of the operation of the checkpoint. A law enforcement agency conducting a DWI checkpoint must advise the public that a checkpoint is being operated by having, at a minimum, one law enforcement vehicle with its blue light in operation during the conducting of the checkpoint, while simultaneously ensuring that placement of checkpoints are random or statistically indicated, and agencies shall avoid placing checkpoints repeatedly in the same location or proximity.

In certain circumstances, evidence obtained at a DWI checkpoint that is deemed to be constitutional may still be suppressed if conducted in violation of N.C.G.S. 20-16.3A.

Contact Browning & Long, PLLC

If you have been stopped at a DWI checkpoint and charged with DWI, or any other criminal offense, contact our attorneys at Browning & Long, PLLC for a free consultation on the specific facts of your case. Our attorneys can help you determine whether you were stopped at an unlawful DWI checkpoint, and if so, advise you on the necessary steps to suppress any incriminating evidence that the police may have obtained against you.

 

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