North Carolina DWI Checkpoints – Are They Legal?

North Carolina DWI Checkpoints - Are they legal?

“License Checking Stations” in North Carolina are increasingly common.  Whether in a large city such as Charlotte, or a smaller town like Cornelius, motorists should be aware of checkpoints. . .and the legality of stopping vehicles.  One of the primary stated reasons for DWI Checkpoints is for public awareness.  Put simply, law enforcement want to be visible and they want ordinary citizens to see people being stopped.   Public perception of the likelihood of being caught and punished for a violation of impaired driving laws is a significant part of an overall effort to reduce alcohol related wrecks and fatalities.  The assumption is there is a deterrent effect, where regular, systematic checkpoints influence public behavior when it comes to drinking and driving.

The purpose of this article by Attorney Bill Powers is to provide background information on the law of DWI Checkpoints, the legal rationale and authority under North Carolina General Statutes.  If you have additional questions, please feel free to call Bill directly at:  704-342-4357.

Who Decides “What is Legal” or the “Law?”
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Laws in North Carolina come from several different sources.  Generally speaking, the North Carolina General Assembly, also known as the Legislature passes laws.  With regard to impaired driving, those laws are set forth in Chapter 20 of the North Carolina General Statutes.   Specifically N.C.G.S. 20-138.1 defines the offense of Driving While Impaired.  The second source of “law” involving DWI comes from the Courts, or better said, the appellate courts; Appellate Courts review statutory authority for the law, prior appellate decisions and the Constitutions of both the United States and North Carolina in reviewing what is and is NOT “legal.”  Appellate decisions are referred to in the legal community as “caselaw.”    Sometimes it is also called “precedent.”  

Are North Carolina DWI Checkpoints Legal?

Being stopped at a checkpoint is considered a “seizure” by law enforcement.  The term “seizure” has significant legal importance and is the first step in determining whether an DWI Checkpoint is rooted in both statutory and caselaw authority.    The North Carolina Supreme Court set forth that legal maxim in State v. Mitchell, writing,  [P]olice officers effectuate a seizure when they stop a vehicle at a checkpoint.”  As with all seizures, checkpoints conform with the Fourth Amendment only “if they are reasonable.”   Following the language of the United States Constitution, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”  Put simply, a “search or seizure is ordinarily unreasonable in the absence of individualized suspicion of wrongdoing.”  City of Indianapolis v. Edmond

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Are Stops Legal – Even When No Law Broken?

That indeed is the question.  How is it that we as citizens are protected against “seizures,” unless there is “probable cause” to stop?  Don’t checkpoints violate that very precept of the Fourth Amendment, in that normally police officers would not observe violations of law without stopping vehicles?  The United States Supreme Court has allowed, as an limited exception to the Fourth Amendment, “brief, suspicionless seizures at fixed checkpoints designed to intercept illegal aliens.”  It also has allowed checkpoints to “verify drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations.”  But, it also adds, “We decline  to suspend the usual requirement of individualized suspicion where the police seek to employ a checkpoint primarily for the ordinary enterprise of investigating crimes. We cannot sanction stops justified only by the generalized and ever-present possibility that interrogation and inspection may reveal that any given motorist has committed some crime.”   City of Indianapolis v. Edmond

What is the Law for North Carolina DWI Checkpoints?

Checkpoints in North Carolina are authorized in N.C.G.S. 20-16.3A.  There are requirements including:

  • Checkpoint purpose is to determine compliance “with this Chapter,” or N.C.G.S. Chapter 20 (including DWI & other offenses)
  • Designate in advance the pattern for stopping vehicles
  • Designate in advance the method for “requesting drivers that are stopped to produce drivers license, registration, or insurance information”
  • Operate under a written policy that provides guidelines for the pattern
  • Advise the public that an authorized checking station is being operated by having, at a minimum, one law enforcement vehicle with its blue light in operation during the conducting of the checking station

Are North Carolina DWI Checkpoints Always Legal or Accepted by Trial Courts?

No.  In fact, checking stations, whether deemed “License Checkpoints” or “DWI Checkpoints” are regularly a subject of dispute throughout the courts of North Carolina.  The caselaw, as well as the statutory authority and constitutional basis for impaired driving checkpoints remains a hotly contested aspect of any DWI Defense.  There have been a series of Appellate Court decisions in North Carolina including but not limited to State v. Rose, State v. Burroughs, State v. Veazey.

For additional information on the Per Capita DWI Checkpoint Statistical Analysis

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