Under the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, citizens have a right to be free from “unreasonable search and seizure.” This rule of law requires probable cause before a police officer may search you, your home or your vehicle, and requires probable cause for a law enforcement officer to make a traffic stop. So what about sobriety checkpoints, where police simply set up a roadblock and subject drivers to field sobriety blood alcohol tests. There doesn’t seem to be any “probable cause” present in these situations. How does such an activity pass constitutional muster?
Here’s how it works. In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a case out of Michigan, that the public interest in keeping drunk drivers off the road outweighs a citizen’s right to be free of certain levels of intrusion while driving. The court did not make sobriety checkpoints the law in all 50 states, but said that the states could enact laws or permit police to use this tool. The court also said that states could establish their own guidelines regarding when sobriety checkpoints are legal.
The state of New Jersey has legalized sobriety checkpoints and set forth the following requirements for the validity of such operations:
- The public must receive advance notice of sobriety checkpoints, but police do not need to disclose where the traffic stops will be
- Field officers cannot unilaterally initiate a sobriety checkpoint-all such operations must be approved administratively in advance
- The formula for determining who is subjected to a full search/alcohol test must either be random or based on a neutral mathematical formula
- The checkpoint must be reasonably visible in advance
- When police officers have reasonable suspicion of intoxication, a field sobriety test may be conducted. Absent additional probable cause, though, a vehicle may not be searched.
Contact the Attorneys at Mallon & Tranger
We offer a free initial consultation to anyone facing criminal charges in New Jersey. To set up a meeting, contact us online or call us at 732-702-0333 (toll free at ) for an appointment. We have offices in Freehold and Point Pleasant.