Are DWI Roadblocks Legal in Texas?
We are often asked if police roadblocks or sobriety checkpoints are allowed in Texas. In short, no. DWI roadblocks and sobriety checkpoints are illegal in Texas. However, there are instances where roadblocks have been permitted in the past.
What is a DWI Checkpoint?
DWI checkpoints are police roadblocks set up to stop every vehicle passing through a specific location in order to check the drivers’ sobriety.
For example, in 1991 the Arlington Police Department set-up a field sobriety checkpoint at the 1200 block of West Division Road. At the time, the checkpoint followed department guidelines and was approved by the Traffic Division Commander. The police department provided the date and the location of the checkpoint to the media, and the media then wrote an article advising citizens of the upcoming roadblock. Warning signs were visible to drivers as they approached the roadblock, and police directed traffic to the checkpoint.
The roadblock stopped every vehicle passing through, netting 341 cars over a three-hour period. The police investigated each driver for signs of intoxication by detaining the driver and car for approximately 10 to 15 seconds. If the officer observed signs of intoxication (such as the odor of an alcoholic beverage, slurred speech, or bloodshot, watery eyes), then the driver was moved to an isolated area to perform the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs). If the officer did not see any signs of intoxication, then the driver was allowed to proceed through the checkpoint and continue on their way. In the end, 10 drivers were arrested for Driving While Intoxicated. This type of a sobriety checkpoint is no longer legal in Texas.
Roadblocks are Seizures that Implicate the Fourth Amendment
Sobriety checkpoints and police roadblocks raise serious Fourth Amendment concerns. The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures. When law enforcement stops your vehicle pursuant to a roadside checkpoint, you are being subjected to a seizure without any reasonable suspicion that an offense occurred.
Seizures without suspicion are generally illegal as they violate the Fourth Amendment. However, in certain circumstances, a court may decide the public’s interest is greater than an individual’s right to privacy and allow “suspicionless seizures.”
For DWI roadblocks, or sobriety checkpoints, the courts consider three factors when reviewing “suspicionless seizures”: (1) the State’s interest in preventing accidents caused by people driving while intoxicated, (2) the effectiveness of sobriety checkpoint in preventing such accidents, and (3) the level of intrusion the sobriety checkpoint has on an individual’s right to privacy.
Why Roadblocks are Currently Not Legal
In 1994, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that for any sobriety checkpoint to be reasonable, it must at a minimum be authorized by a statewide policy governing checkpoints. See Holt v. State 887 S.W.2d 16 (1994). The State of Texas has not authorized police officers to conduct roadblocks, much less sanctioned their enforcement techniques. Therefore, sobriety checkpoints or similar roadblocks are unconstitutional in Texas.
Avoiding a Roadblock Could Give Rise to Reasonable Suspicion
While roadblocks are illegal in Texas, actions taken to avoid such a checkpoint could give officers reasonable suspicion to legally detain your vehicle. If a driver observed a police roadblock ahead sign and clearly attempts to avoid it, for example by coming to a sudden stop and making a u-turn, the driver arguably having given an officer reasonable suspicion to stop them. Once legally stopped, officers can investigate any sign of intoxication to determine if an offense occurred.
Are License Checkpoints Legal?
The United States Supreme Court recognized in Prouse 440 U.S. 648 (1979) that “the States have a vital interest in ensuring that only those qualified to do so are permitted to operate motor vehicles.”
If a police department has written standard procedures for conducting a driver’s license checkpoint, those procedures are followed, all vehicles have stopped, officers have no discretion in which vehicles were stopped, and each vehicle is stopped for a short period of time, the license checkpoint will likely be upheld as constitutional. (See Stoppenbrink v. State, Court of Appeals of Texas, Dallas (2009)).
If you have been arrested for Driving While Intoxicated in North Texas, call Varghese Summersett PLLC at 817-203-2220.