Last Saturday night in the greater Cincinnati area, we had another OVI checkpoint in Hamilton County. The most recent checkpoint lasted four hours. OVI checkpoints have become increasingly popular by state highway patrols and local police agencies.
Many people wonder whether OVI checkpoints amount to unlawful searches and seizures given the fact they are traffic stops initiated without probable cause. We commonly are asked questions like “were my rights violated?” and “how can the police stop me without probable cause?”
Both, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution require the government to have probable cause before conducting a search or seizure. In the context of traffic stops, this means generally an officer may stop a vehicle if he or she reasonably believes a traffic violation has occurred or has a reasonable suspicion based on specific, articulable facts that a criminal offense has been or is being committed. Under the eyes of the law, however, temporary roadblocks and checkpoints typically present exceptions to the general rule that a lawful traffic stop must be supported by a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.
Interestingly, the Ohio Supreme Court has not addressed whether OVI checkpoints are constitutional. In State v. Orr, however, the Ohio Supreme Court did evaluate the constitutionality of driver’s license checkpoints setting forth a balancing test very similar to the test set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz.
Sitz involved an OVI checkpoint in which all vehicles were stopped and drivers briefly examined for signs of intoxication. The Court admitted checkpoints amount to searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. The Court, however, found that because a stop is less intrusive than an arrest, it is necessary to weigh the individual’s privacy interest against the government’s interest in curbing drunk driving.
The Court held that in determining an OVI checkpoint’s constitutionality, a court must establish and balance the following factors: (1) whether there is a grave governmental interest, such as to prevent accidents occasioned by drunk driving; (2) whether the checkpoint reasonably advances the state’s interest, sets forth proper guidelines, and limits police discretion in selecting vehicles to be stopped; and (3) whether the intrusion on the motorist is slight.
Whether an OVI checkpoint is constitutional is determined on a case-by-case basis. The most important thing to remember is that if you are stopped-whether at an OVI checkpoint or elsewhere-always be polite and cooperative with the officer. If asked to submit to sobriety tests, you have every right to refuse to submit to the tests.