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Memorial Day means DUI checkpoints

Memorial Day often marks the unofficial start of summer. The long weekend also marks of one of Colorado’s biggest DUI enforcement initiatives, The Heat Is On.

According to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), more than 100 agencies across the state participated in The Heat is On this year, which ran from Friday (May 25) to today (May 29). The program provides additional state funding to local law enforcement and Colorado state patrol officers for police overtime and DUI checkpoints during the three-day holiday weekend.

And before you think such initiatives don’t actually work, note that CDOT just wrapped up a separate Heat Is On campaign in which 1,850 people were arrested for drunk driving. Of those arrests, 175 were in Denver alone.

Wait, are DUI checkpoints even legal?

Most Coloradans are familiar with the concept of DUI checkpoints, but many still question their legality. Critics of DUI checkpoints argue that they violate citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights. Since DUI checkpoints stop many people who are in fact sober, they argue, DUI checkpoints essentially amount to unreasonable search and seizure.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court determined in 1990 that when conducted properly, sobriety checkpoints are in fact constitutional. Only 10 states have outlawed them, citing prohibitions in their own state constitutions.

Colorado isn’t one of them.

Ok, so what does “conducted properly” mean?

The U.S. Supreme Court largely left the definition of “properly” up to individual states. According to Colorado's sobriety checkpoint manual, law enforcement agencies must do the following:

  • Clearly mark DUI checkpoints: This is usually done with warning signs, traffic cones or road closures. Some communities also put out public service announcements.
  • Allow motorists to legally avoid the checkpoint: Police are generally not allowed to pull over drivers who attempt to avoid the checkpoint if drivers don’t break any traffic laws in the process. If they legally make a U-turn or turn down a side street, for example, cops can’t pursue them.
  • Make sure police are uniformed and highly visible: It must be obvious this is a legitimate operation run by law enforcement agents. The presence of multiple officers and marked police vehicles is standard.
  • Choose a location that keeps everyone safe: If the checkpoint is set up on highly trafficked street or on the freeway, it may be too dangerous to conduct proper sobriety testing. The checkpoint should allow normal traffic to flow safely (if slowly) through it.
  • Develop a nondiscriminatory strategy for pulling cars over: Even in a checkpoint, officers can’t just pull anyone over at random. Officers must develop a strategy or method for pulling cars over ahead of time, like pulling over every fifth car or all the blue cars, for example.
  • Uphold the doctrine of probable cause: Officers must still have probable cause to believe a motorist is drunk before arresting them. This is usually done by conducting field sobriety tests and preliminary breath tests at the checkpoint itself.

What if I was arrested at DUI checkpoint this past weekend?

You may have been stopped on your way back from the cabin or your friend’s barbecue. Being stopped a DUI checkpoint is just as unnerving as being pulled over by the state trooper.

Similarly, a DUI arrest is still a DUI arrest. The same defense strategies apply to DUI checkpoints as “regular” DUI traffic stops. Did police have probable cause? Were sobriety tests properly administered? Were you read your Miranda rights? Was chemical test equipment properly calibrated? The answers to these questions could mean the difference between conviction and acquittal.

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