Blood Draws at DUI Checkpoints: Public Benefit or Vampire State?
In the cat-and-mouse game that law enforcement plays with drunk drivers, the rules often change. For years police needed probable cause to pull a driver over and test for alcohol. Any erratic behavior, such as swerving or even driving too slowly would be reason enough to stop and examine the driver. Alternatively, if officers flagged down a car for another violation, such as a broken taillight, they would be within their rights to check out the driver’s sobriety.
Useful as those methods were, they left too many drunk drivers on the road. In order to prevent these senseless fatalities, some states now allow checkpoints at which all drivers must stop and submit to a breath test. If the officer at the checkpoint suspects you have been drinking, he or she can determine your sobriety with a breath test, or the more accurate blood test.
Law enforcement does not have a free hand, however: the Supreme Court ruled that police must have a warrant before drawing blood for a DUI test, since drawing blood certainly comes under the category of a search. But there is a complication: time is of the essence at DUI stops. Alcohol can dissipate in the driver’s blood while an officer is waiting for the warrant to come through. As alcohol dissipates, so does the prosecution’s case.
Enter the “no-refusal” checkpoint. The innovation: the warrant is provided via phone by a judge who is on call. Drivers must deliver blood then and there for a test — or face jail.
Predictably, this practice is controversial. Some civil libertarians object to a “Vampire State” that can draw blood at will. Public safety advocates point out that alcohol-related fatalities do not go down by themselves, and checkpoints are a one proven method of getting drunk drivers off the road.
During the recent July 4th holiday, Texas, Oregon, and Tennessee ran “no-refusal” DUI checkpoints. We have no doubt that such checkpoints will remain controversial for a long time to come.