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Random Sobriety Checks: Legal in Washington?

Posted by Russell West | Sep 14, 2015 | 0 Comments

For residents of 38 states, roadside checkpoints are a fact of life. Fortunately for residents here in the Pacific Northwest, including Washington State, Oregon, and Idaho, this is not a concern. However, police often curtail the rules and still randomly check motorists for DUI. Attorneys in Spokane and surrounding areas frequently deal with such police tactics.

In 1990 the Supreme Court Found Roadside Sobriety Checks Constitutional

The case was Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz. Based on that landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the public interest in preventing drunk driving outweighed the minor inconvenience and possible infringement of a few citizens having to be stopped unnecessarily. This decision, however, did not mean every state had to use these measures. To date, 12 states do not use roadside checkpoints.

How the Police Curtail the Law by Randomly Checking Drivers Anyway

Police in Washington State have no legal, statutory authority to create those nasty nighttime roadside checkpoints. However, what is to prevent them from simply pulling over as many drivers as possible on a given stretch of road, late at night, with very little justification? Here is how it works. The police line up in a particular area known for high concentrations of drunk drivers. Generally, the police will target weekends and holidays when DUIs are most frequent. Finally, the police begin pulling over one driver after another just for the purpose of checking to see if the driver is impaired.

There is a huge problem with this, however. Police must have probable cause to make such a traffic stop. Probable cause means that there must be some basis for making the stop. The officer must reasonably suspect that a crime or traffic infraction has been committed, and this requires the officer to actually observe some violation. Most police officers will tell you that even the best drivers are likely to make at least one or two minor traffic infractions if you follow them around for a few minutes. These types of stops are referred to by lawyers as “pretext” stops, meaning the police are using an otherwise very minor offense that would rarely if ever be enforced in the daytime as a “pretext” for making the stop.

There are so many laws that even the safest drivers typically do not know them all. Consider the following tiny infractions that drivers can make, and just ask, “How often do I do that?”

Have you ever slightly crossed the line while driving at night? This is considered a traffic violation that gives the police a right to stop you.

Have you ever gotten just a little too close to the car in front of you? The law says nothing about the exact amount of distance you must stay back - the officer must use his or her discretion to determine what is safe.

Have you ever used your turn signal less than 100 feet from your intended turn? If so, you could be pulled over for improper use of a turn signal.

Do you know exactly how to make a right turn? Did you know that you must remain as “close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway?”  This law again says nothing about what is “practicable.”

What to Do if You Get a DUI During a “Pretext” Stop

If you are pulled over and receive a DUI, yet the initial stop was for something simple like being too far from the curb when you made a right turn or because you allegedly crossed the line, you should contact a skilled Spokane DUI lawyer who can aggressively defend you and make sure you are treated fairly and receive the best outcome given your situation. Since the facts of every case are unique, it is imperative you have competent and experienced representation from the start.

About the Author

Russell West

Russell West from West Law Office, located in Spokane, Washington represents clients in areas of criminal traffic, misdemeanors, and personal injury. DUI’s, Reckless Driving, Negligent driving, Hit and Run, and Driving with Suspended license are the majority of criminal traffic violations. Drug Charges, Theft, and Domestic Violence account for most of the other criminal cases Russell handles.


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West Law Office - Russell West Attorney

Spokane Attorney Russell West practice areas include: Auto Accidents, Personal Injury, Motorcycle Accidents, Slip and Falls, DUIs, DOL Hearings, Criminal Traffic, Expungement/Vacating Records, and Insurance Bad Faith

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