The police may set up DWI checkpoints to curb intoxicated driving. If you pass by these checkpoints while driving, a law enforcement officer may motion you to pull over and subject you to a sobriety test.
Often, the police decide to set up checkpoints during particular days, such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Independence Day, when they know that most drivers have a high probability of becoming drunk. Checkpoints are not primarily meant to become traps, and law enforcement usually warns the public before setting them up.
However, most people have questioned whether these checkpoints are legally valid in Texas. The quick answer to this question is ‘no.’ In fact, Texas is among the 13 states in the USA that have illegalized checkpoints, declaring them as ‘unconstitutional.’
In this article, we will explain to you why DWI checkpoints are considered to be illegal in Texas. We will also highlight how Texan courts can admit DWI checkpoint evidence in particular circumstances. Finally, we will show you what to do when stopped at a DWI checkpoint, and the legal steps you should take if you end up being arrested. Let’s get started!
The Validity of DWI Checkpoints in the United States
The question of whether DWI checkpoints are legally valid is not only raised in Texas but also in the entire United States. In 1990, the US Supreme Court tried answering this question in the case of Michigan State Department of Police vs Sitz, holding that DWI checkpoints are valid.
In this case, the respondents argued that DWI checkpoints violate the 4th Amendment. According to the respondents, since the police can flag down an individual at a checkpoint without having probable cause, these checkpoints contravene the provisions of the US Constitution prohibiting unreasonable seizures.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court ascertained that DWI checkpoints do not amount to any form of unreasonable seizures. In fact, DWI checkpoints can be categorized as ‘reasonable seizures,’ because their primary purpose is to keep intoxicated drivers off the roads, and therefore promoting public safety. According to the Supreme Court, DWI checkpoints cannot be declared to be unconstitutional just because they bring about nuisance and disturbance to one person, or they violate his/her right to privacy.
Thirty-seven states in the USA have adopted this Supreme Court’s position. In these states, DWI checkpoints are valid and enforceable. This means that any form of evidence acquired at these checkpoints can be adduced against DWI defendants in court.
On the other hand, 13 USA states, including Texas, take a position contrary to the Supreme Court. In these states, DWI checkpoints are illegal. Besides Texas, other states that have illegalized DWI checkpoints include Idaho, Wyoming, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Washington, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Alaska, Montana, Missouri, and Oregon.
Why DWI Checkpoints are Considered to be Illegal in Texas
Texas takes a position contrary to that of the US Supreme Court. According to Texas’ DWI Laws, sobriety checkpoints are unlawful and unconstitutional.
Texas still maintains the position that DWI checkpoints violate the 4th Amendment prohibiting unreasonable seizures. Take note that courts in Texas consider stops at DWI checkpoints as seizures. As per Texan DWI jurisprudence, these seizures are unreasonable because the police do not have any probable cause.
Moreover, Texan Courts have held that DWI checkpoints violate article 1(9) of the State Constitution. Article 1 of the Constitution of Texas establishes the Bill of Rights. Particularly, Article 1(9) of the Constitution of Texas states that every person has the right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures.
According to the US Supreme Court, there are competing interests between public safety and individual rights. The need to maintain public safety automatically outweighs an individual’s rights to privacy. Courts in Texas also acknowledge this view. However, they have held that DWI checkpoints cannot be declared legally valid simply because they promote public safety without paying regard to how law enforcement conducts them.
The Landmark Case of Holt vs State
Regina H. Holt vs the State of Texas is a leading case in Texan DWI jurisprudence as to why DWI checkpoints are considered to be illegal. As per the facts of this case, the Arlington Police Department had set up a sobriety checkpoint in Arlington city, where Holt - the appellee, was arrested for drunk driving. Holt had filed a suppression motion to exclude all the evidence obtained at the checkpoint, on the grounds that the checkpoint violated the 4th Amendment and articles 1&9 of the Constitution of Texas.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with Holt, declaring that DWI checkpoints are unconstitutional and not legally enforceable. Subsequently, all the evidence acquired at the checkpoint was excluded. As a result, the prosecution had insufficient evidence, and Holt was acquitted.
This case was determined in 1994, and it set up Texas to be among the 13 states that have illegalized DWI checkpoints. From then on, DWI checkpoints are considered as unlawful in Texas, and any evidence acquired from them is inadmissible.
The Probable Cause Exception
Although checkpoints are considered as illegal in Texas, law enforcement may still set them up. This is because checkpoint evidence can be admissible in court if the prosecution proves that the police officer motioned the defendant to pull over while having a probable cause.
A police officer may instruct you to stop at a checkpoint if he/she notices that you are driving carelessly or breaking a particular traffic law. Typically, a law enforcement agency that is operating a sobriety checkpoint will decide to section off certain portions of the road. This will result in vehicles merging into one or two lanes before stopping.
When you stop at a sobriety checkpoint, the police officer will request you to open your car window. Then, he/she will ask you for your driver’s license and registration. The police officer may also engage you in a conversation to ascertain if you are intoxicated.
Take note that the law enforcement officer will suspect that you are under the influence of alcohol and drugs if:
- You fumble while looking for your documents
- You exhibit an alcoholic stench
- You give incoherent responses to the police officer’s questions
- You have any drugs or alcoholic beverages inside your vehicle
- You have slurred speech, a flushed face, red eyes, or any other physical symptom of impairment
If the police officer suspects that you are under the influence of alcohol and drugs, he/she will request you to submit to at least one of the following tests:
- A chemical breath test for a preliminary result on the percentage of your BAC levels
- A field sobriety test, such as a one-leg stand (OLS), horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN), and the walk-and-turn (WAT)
- A DWI mouth/cheek swab test to ascertain if you have taken any drugs before driving
Based on your test results, you may be arrested for DWI. In such a situation, the court will admit the evidence acquired at the checkpoint. However, in addition to proving that the police had a probable cause when he/she motioned you to pull over, the prosecutor must prove that the BAC checkpoint was conducted in the right manner. For instance, he/she should prove the following:
- The supervising law enforcement officer made all the operational decisions regarding the checkpoint
- The checkpoint was reasonably located
- The supervising officers took into account safety precautions when setting up the checkpoint
- The checkpoint’s duration and time reflected a good judgment
- The checkpoint clearly showed its official nature
- The checkpoint was publicly advertised before it was set up
Getting through a DWI Checkpoint
There are certain steps that you should take when at a DWI checkpoint, regardless of whether or not you are intoxicated. Here are some of them:
1. Do not admit that you have been drinking
The police officer can ask you if you have been drinking. If this is not the case, you will probably say no. However, if you’ve been drinking, you should remain silent instead of answering in the affirmative. You can also politely inform the officer that you do not want to respond to this question. Remember that you shouldn’t argue with him/her or behave rudely.
Don’t maintain eye contact while talking with the police officer. As you talk, the law enforcement officer will keenly observe your face to see whether it is flushed and your eyes to determine if they have turned red. The police officer may also attempt to sniff your breath to find out if it has an alcoholic stench. If the law enforcement officer detects any alcoholic presence, you will be subjected to further questioning.
Avoid saying statements such as, ‘I only took one bottle,’ or ‘I drank a long time ago.’ This is because the prosecution may use any statement admitting that you were drinking against you.
2. Refuse to be subjected to a Car Search
Don’t consent to a car search. A law enforcement officer may really be determined to find overwhelming evidence against you, and he/she can push his/her luck by requesting to search your trunk or car.
When the police officer requests a search, you should politely decline. In some situations, the officer may poke his/her head into your vehicle or direct a flashlight into it. Law enforcement officers shouldn’t enter your car in any DWI checkpoint. In these situations, you should politely tell them to avoid invading your space.
3. Decide whether or not to take DWI Tests
The officer may request you to submit to a chemical breath test, mouth/cheek swab test, or a field sobriety test. If you have been drinking, you should decline taking these tests, to prevent the officer from gathering more evidence against you.
There is a high chance that you may still fail these tests, even if you are sober, and this is why you should decline them. But, you may face certain negative consequences if you decline them. For instance, you may lose your driver’s license. Sometimes, the police officer may obtain a warrant to administer a DUI blood test, so refusing a sobriety test at the checkpoint will just buy you more time. Moreover, it is also not advisable to refuse to submit to the tests if you have a prior DWI conviction.
4. Ask when to Leave
The police officer can’t hold you for an indefinite time. In fact, if he/she does not suspect you of drunk driving, you should leave in less than a minute.
Generally, a law enforcement officer can’t hold you for an indefinite period. If you pass the tests, you should be allowed to leave.
Remember that you shouldn’t leave the checkpoint until the police officer requests you to do so. If you are unsure whether or not you should leave, you should ask him/her.
5. Contact a DWI Attorney if Arrested
If the police officer believes that you were driving while under the influence, he/she will put you under arrest for DWI. If you’ve been arrested, continue refusing to answer his/her questions. Instead, explicitly request permission to contact a DWI attorney.
After arrest, you will be taken to a police station where you will be booked. You will be asked to turn over your personal belongings and have your picture and fingerprints taken. If you had requested permission to contact an attorney, you might be given a chance to do so.
When talking to your attorney over the phone, do not admit anything. This is because most jailhouse phones are bugged.
Can Drivers Turn Around and Avoid DWI Checkpoints?
It isn’t illegal to intentionally avoid a DWI checkpoint. As a motor vehicle driver, you can take a different route or turn around to avoid approaching a DWI checkpoint.
On a practical view, checkpoints are not traps, and before law enforcement sets them up, they will have provided sufficient warning to motorists who can choose to avoid them. Additionally, it is unlawful for a police officer to stop a motorist solely because he/she avoided a DWI checkpoint.
But, Texas’ traffic rules will still apply. A police officer can flag you down if, while avoiding a DWI checkpoint, you break a particular traffic rule, drive carelessly, or display obvious signs of intoxication.
Find a DWI Defense Attorney Near Me
If you or your loved one has been arrested at a DWI checkpoint in Fort Worth, we invite you to contact us at the Fort Worth DWI Defense Lawyer. We will help you build a robust defense strategy. Call us today at 817-470-2128 for a free consultation.