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Are Police Checkpoints Legal? What about My Miranda Rights?

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Traffic officerAs you drive toward a police checkpoint on the road, do you wonder if this is legal in America?  Many people believe it is a violation of their Constitutional rights to be stopped at a checkpoint when they have not violated any traffic law.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court and the appellate courts of North Carolina have held otherwise. Thus, police are allowed to establish checkpoints on public roads at which motorists are required to stop.

When is a police checkpoint valid?

A checkpoint is legal if it is for a valid, specified purpose such as checking compliance with motor vehicle laws, checking for possession of a valid license and registration, or checking the driver’s sobriety.

The police must create a written plan that establishes the purpose of the checkpoint and sets out the pattern that will be used to stop cars. This written plan must later be available to the judge and the defendant’s attorney in order to determine whether the plan complies with North Carolina statutes and whether the police complied with their own plan at the checkpoint.

Can the police choose which cars to stop?

At a checkpoint, a police officer cannot have individual discretion to determine which vehicles to stop.  The period of time for which the driver may be stopped must be brief unless the police officer develops reasonable suspicion that a criminal offense has been committed.

Depending on the designated purpose of the checkpoint, a police officer may ask the driver for his license and registration or may engage him in conversation to observe any clues of impairment, and is entitled to investigate further if he observes contraband or other evidence of criminal behavior in plain view.

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If this occurs, the encounter essentially becomes a regular traffic stop where the police officer can investigate further based on reasonable suspicion.  Regarding this, please see my previous blog article “What Should I Do When I’m Stopped by Police?”

Do I lose my Miranda rights when questioned at a police checkpoint?

Like any other vehicle stop, a police officer can question you without advising you of your Miranda rights.

Nevertheless, you are not required to answer his questions. And if the officer sees contraband in plain view in your car, he can search the car without a warrant.

If the officer asks you to consent to a search of your car, and you agree, he can then search the car consistent with the scope of your consent.

If he arrests you for any offense, including DWI, then he must advise you of your Miranda rights before questioning you about the offense. Further, upon your arrest, the officer can search that portion of the car that was within your “lunge area” as a “search incident to arrest”.

Can I avoid a checkpoint?

Can a driver turn around and avoid a checkpoint?  Not easily.

Once a driver enters the perimeter of a checkpoint, which happens when the approaching driver observes a sign advising him of the checkpoint, he can be pulled over if he turns around or otherwise drives away from the checkpoint.  The North Carolina Supreme Court has found such a stop not to violate the driver’s rights.  

Despite the fact that checkpoints are legal, evidence obtained from them can be suppressed if the police did not execute the checkpoint in compliance with a written plan in accordance with North Carolina statutes. “Suppression” of evidence means that the court bars the use or admission of the evidence against the defendant during the trial.

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The lawyers of Rawls, Scheer, Foster & Mingo have deep experience litigating the validity of vehicle checkpoints and have been very successful in suppressing evidence obtained from invalid checkpoints.