Drunk driving is a serious offense in Virginia. Operating a vehicle under alcohol or drug influence endangers the safety of the driver and other road users. In the fight against drunk driving conduct, Virginia law allows police officers to set up DUI checkpoints throughout the state. A DUI checkpoint is used to identify and arrest intoxicated drivers. At a DUI checkpoint, the police officers will stop your vehicle, observe your conduct, and further investigate for DUI if you exhibit signs of intoxication.
While law enforcement argues that checkpoints are an essential tool in the fight against DUI, there are concerns that the DUI checkpoints violate drivers' rights under the fourth amendment. Virginia courts have ruled in favor of the checkpoints but impose regulations that the officers must follow when setting up and investigating DUI at the checkpoints. The events that occur at a DUI checkpoint are significant to the outcome of your situation. If you face an arrest at the DUI checkpoint, you must hire the services of a skilled DUI defense lawyer.
What Happens at a DUI Checkpoint in Virginia?
Police officers stop your vehicle at a sobriety test to observe and investigate you for drunk driving conduct. While there are significant concerns about the legality of these checkpoints, police officers have a mandate to set them up and arrest drivers who are found driving under the influence. Therefore, if you find yourself at a DUI checkpoint, you must cooperate with the officers.
Law enforcement officers will stop your vehicle at the checkpoint if they have probable cause to believe you were drunk driving. Conduct such as speeding, attempting to turn away from the checkpoint, avoiding red lights, and reckless driving are a basis for sobriety check stops and DUI investigations. After you stop your vehicle, the officer will ask questions regarding your identification. Additionally, they will ask that you provide the documentation needed when operating a motor vehicle in Virginia, including:
- Your driver’s license. Driving without a valid driver’s license is a crime in Virginia. Therefore, if you fail to provide this document, you can face charges for driving without a license and drunk driving.
- Vehicle registration. You must produce your vehicle registration documents before a traffic officer begins their DUI investigations.
- Proof of Insurance. Every driver operating on the roads in Virginia must have minimum auto insurance. Although DUI checkpoints are set to catch drivers who violate drunk driving laws, the checkpoint may end in an arrest for other driving-related offenses like driving without insurance.
While asking and checking the documents you provide, the officer will be looking out for these signs of intoxication:
- Alcohol odor from your mouth. You should limit your interactions with police officers if you have been drinking. As you open your mouth to answer the officer’s questions, they may try to sniff out your breath for alcohol odor.
- The smell of drugs in the vehicle. If the officer smells drugs like marijuana in your car, they will find a reason to continue the DUI investigation.
- Visible beer cans. Traffic officers are not allowed to search your vehicle during a sobriety checkpoint. However, this does not stop the officer from looking into your car through the window for any visible beer cans or other evidence to suggest drug use.
- Slurred speech. If the officer notices that your eyes are red and you struggle to speak, they could conclude that you have been drinking.
- Inconsistent statements. The officers could ask questions about your drinking if you have passengers in your vehicle during a sobriety checkpoint stop. Inconsistent statements, in this case, could heighten the drunk driving suspicion.
Field Sobriety Test
Law enforcement uses field sobriety tests to evaluate whether the use of alcohol or drugs impairs your conduct. If you exhibit intoxication from police observation, the officers may proceed to an FST. Due to the controversy around the FST tests, submitting to these tests is optional. There are three types of standardized tests that police in Virginia use across the country, including:
Walk and Turn Test
The walk and turn test involves walking heel-to-toe along a straight line. After counting your steps to the end of the line, you must stop and turn around. Interpretations for this test. Some of the things that that the officer will look for during the administration of this test include:
- Your ability to keep your balance while listening to instructions
- Starting or stopping too soon
- Improper turn
- Failure to maintain position and stepping out of the line
The one-leg stand test requires you to raise one leg to six inches off the ground and remain on one leg until the officer asks you to stop. The police officers could interpret the following conduct as signs of intoxication:
- Use of arms for balance
- Swaying out of balance
- Putting your foot down
Horizontal Gaze Eye-Test
The horizontal gaze test is an eye test that allows the officer to check your coordination by asking you to follow an object. The clue that indicates the use of alcohol include:
- Deviation from the object
- Lack of smooth pursuit
After performing the sobriety test, the traffic officer will move along to perform a breathalyzer test on you. Almost every DUI case relies on blood and breath test results. Unlike the field sobriety test, a breathalyzer test is not optional. Drivers operating on the highways in Virginia are subject to implied consent. The implied consent is the responsibility to submit to the breathalyzer or blood tests if you are suspected or under arrest for drunk driving.
The officers perform the breathalyzer test by asking you to blow into the breathalyzer device. The legal BAC limit for driving in Virginia is 0.08%. Therefore, if your BAC exceeds the legal limit following the breathalyzer test at the DUI checkpoint, you will face an arrest and criminal charges for drunk driving.
Although the breath test results are a crucial piece of evidence in a DUI case, there are a variety of reasons why these test results could be inaccurate:
- Medical conditions that cause increased mouth alcohol
- Rising BAC between the time of the DUI stop and the administration of the breathalyzer test
- Faulty breathalyzer device
If the police officers stop you at a sobriety checkpoint, you cannot refuse to submit to a chemical test. It is essential to understand that the officers cannot force you to take the tests. However, even without the results of a breath test, the officers can arrest you based on their observation and file charges for DUI. If you face a conviction for a DWI, you will face penalties for the DUI and additional penalties.
A first violation of the implied consent law is a civil offense under Virginia Code 18.2-268.3. However, a subsequent violation will attract criminal charges. The penalties for failing to submit to a breath test at the DUI checkpoint include:
- You face a one-year driver’s license suspension for the first violation. The additional license suspension is consecutive to the suspension you face after the conviction.
- If you have a prior DUI conviction, a violation of the implied consent law is a misdemeanor that attracts a one-year jail sentence, fines of up to $2,500, and a three-year driver’s license suspension.
Tips to Handle DUI Checkpoints in Virginia
Law enforcement officers in Virginia can set up DUI checkpoints to discourage drunk driving and punish drivers who engage in such conduct. How you act during the DUI investigation at the DUI checkpoint can significantly affect the outcome of the investigation and your drunk driving case. The following are tips you can use when a police officer stops your vehicle at the DUI checkpoint:
Approaching a DUI checkpoint and being stopped by the law enforcement officer is nerve-wracking, especially when you have had a beer or two. Although keeping calm is difficult, you must avoid panicking. Taking a few beers before driving is not a wise decision. However, it does not mean you are intoxicated or your BAC level exceeds the legal limit. You can only face an arrest at the DUI checkpoint if your conduct seems impaired or your breath test results show a BAC that exceeds 0.08%.
Police officers will observe your behavior from the moment they stop your vehicle. Panicking or acting nervous could be seen as a sign of drunk driving or engaging in other illegal activities.
Don’t Avoid the Checkpoint.
Police officers often have probable cause to believe you were drunk driving before stopping you at a DUI checkpoint. Additionally, traffic officers must inform the public of a checkpoint in a specific location. If you have been drinking, you can avoid following the route where you believe there is a checkpoint. However, if you approach a DUI checkpoint and the police stop your vehicle, you should not try to turn around. Failing to stop as instructed could heighten the officer's suspicion of your drunk driving.
Cooperate with the Traffic Officers
Dealing with police officers is not as complicated as many people assume. After a stop at the checkpoint, you should lower your window and follow the orders from the officer. This allows you to quickly move through the checkpoint and avoid facing charges for a more severe offense like disobeying a police officer. At the stop, you must provide the following information: your identification, vehicle registration, driver’s license, and proof of vehicle insurance.
Watch What you say to the Officers.
Besides providing the documentation necessary at the checkpoint, you must be very careful with the information you divulge to the law enforcement officers. While it is wise to answer the questions asked, you should make the answers short and avoid volunteering information. During your interactions with law enforcement at the DUI checkpoint, any information you provide is recorded and can be presented against you in a drunk driving case.
Say no to a Field Sobriety Test.
If the officer at the DUI checkpoint detects an alcohol odor or finds beer cans in your vehicle, they may ask you to step out of your car for further observation. The observation may include the performance of a field sobriety test to determine your stability and ability to operate safely. There is so much error in the results of a field sobriety test. Sometimes, you may have a condition that makes it impossible for you to maintain balance, and the officers may interpret this as a sign of drunk driving.
Additionally, the time wasted performing the sobriety test will give more time for alcohol metabolism, and your breath or blood test may indicate DUI. Fortunately, field sobriety tests are not mandatory. Therefore, you can politely decline if the officer attempts to perform these tests.
Do not admit to Drunk Driving.
The primary purpose of a sobriety test is to find drunk drivers and charge them with DUI. Therefore, it is likely that the officer will ask about your drinking conduct before operating the vehicle. You are not legally obligated to answer this question. Instead of speculating, you can decline to answer. Taking some drinks doesn’t mean your BAC has exceeded the limit or your conduct is impaired. Any admission of drinking can be used as evidence in your DUI case.
Contact your Attorney
If you face an arrest at a Virginia DUI checkpoint, you should not attempt to defend yourself. Instead, you should contact your lawyer, who can guide you on the steps to take towards fighting the drunk driving charges.
Submit to the Breath Test.
In addition to providing your driving documents and observing your conduct, police officers at the DUI checkpoint could ask you to submit a breathalyzer test. The breathalyzer test is the only way to ascertain your blood alcohol content at the checkpoint. Although the officers cannot legally force you to take the test, refusal of a breath test could result in an arrest and prosecution for drunk driving.
Your Rights at a DUI Checkpoint in Virginia
If traffic officers stop you at a DUI checkpoint, you must know your constitutional rights on all actions that the officers take against you during the time you spend at the checkpoint:
Right Against Illegal Search and Seizure
Law enforcement officers utilize the DUI checkpoints to emphasize and implement the strict drunk driving laws of the state. However, the checkpoints are not always legal. If the investigation at the checkpoint ends in an arrest for DUI, you can challenge the charges. You can do this by arguing that the police officers violated the fourth amendment laws when setting up the checkpoint.
The police officers are legally required to publicize a checkpoint before its implementation. The DUI checkpoint is made public through departmental websites or newspapers. Additionally, a DUI checkpoint is aimed only at arresting and prosecuting individuals who exhibit drunk driving conduct. Therefore, police officers cannot use this opportunity to search you or your vehicle for evidence of criminal activity that does not involve drunk driving.
Right Against Stop Without Probable Cause
Although the checkpoints help to discourage drunk driving and prosecute individuals who violate Virginia drunk driving laws, the police cannot stop every vehicle that passes through the checkpoint. The officers must have probable cause to stop your car. By observing your driving conduct or relying on anonymous tips, the officers can formulate a probable cause of your drunk driving behavior. Some actions that could suggest to the traffic officers that you were drunk driving include violating traffic rules, speeding, and swerving from one lane to another.
Right Against Arrest without Probable Cause
You have a right against arrests without probable cause at a Virginia DUI checkpoint. After stopping your vehicle, the officers must conduct a thorough investigation through observations and the breath test to formulate a probable cause for arrest. If you are arrested and charged with DUI, you can put up a defense by arguing that you were arrested without probable cause.
Find a Reliable Fairfax Virginia Criminal Attorney Near Me
Every year, the number of drivers who face arrests for drunk driving in Virginia continues to increase. Nothing is scarier than driving home after dinner and drinks with your friends and finding yourself at a DUI checkpoint. Police officers set up sobriety checkpoints to catch drivers who operate vehicles under alcohol or drug influence. DUI checkpoints are random and temporary, and the investigations occurring at these stops could result in an arrest and charges for different drunk driving-related offenses.
Virginia DUI laws are very harsh, and conviction for a DUI-related offense attracts serious legal consequences. The events following a traffic stop at the DUI checkpoint will affect the investigation and your DUI case outcome. Therefore, knowing your rights at a sobriety checkpoint could help protect you from an arrest and prosecution.
If you or a loved one faces an arrest at a DUI checkpoint, it is vital to have an experienced DUI defense attorney looking out for you. At Virginia Criminal Attorney, we will help you understand your rights and guide you through building a solid defense to fight the DUI charges. We serve clients seeking legal guidance and representation to beat DUI charges in the City of Fairfax and Northern Virginia. Contact us at 703-718-5533.