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Are DUI & License Checkpoints Legal in South Carolina?

In South Carolina, law enforcement may briefly stop drivers at a checkpoint or a roadblock for the limited purpose of verifying a driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. Also, authorities may set up checkpoints to detect drunk drivers. However, in every case involving an arrest for a DUI at a checkpoint, the prosecution must first show that the checkpoint didn’t violate the driver’s rights under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In this article, our DUI lawyers in Mount Pleasant examine the laws and the procedures in South Carolina regarding license and DUI checkpoints, your legal rights, and what to do if you’re stopped at a checkpoint in South Carolina.

Are License or DUI Checkpoints Legal in South Carolina?

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that all persons have a right to be from unreasonable searches and seizures. Although a license or DUI checkpoint is the equivalent of a “seizure,” the United States Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of using a brief stop to check licenses or to detect drunk drivers. However, not all checkpoints are legal unless they meet some basic requirements. Whether a checkpoint was legal largely depends on exactly how law enforcement set up the checkpoint, how they ran the checkpoint, and a showing of evidence that the checkpoint was “successful.”

The Legal Requirements for Setting Up a License or DUI Checkpoint in South Carolina

Law Enforcement Must Have a Valid Reason for the Checkpoint – Law enforcement must have a valid reason for the checkpoint’s location, such as an increased DUI rate in a certain area.

Supervisory Approval is Needed – In South Carolina, a couple of officers can’t just decide to set up a license or DUI checkpoint whenever or wherever they like. Instead, supervisory law enforcement personnel must approve: (1) the decision to establish a checkpoint; (2) the selection of the checkpoint site, and (3) the procedures for the checkpoint’s operation. Also, the checkpoint must be overseen by a supervising, uniformed law enforcement officer.

Law Enforcement Must Publicize the Checkpoint – Law enforcement must announce the date and the location of any potential checkpoint.

The Legal Requirements for Conducting a Checkpoint in South Carolina

Cars Must Be Stopped in a Predictable Pattern – When conducting a checkpoint in South Carolina, law enforcement can’t stop vehicles randomly. Instead, law enforcement can only stop motorists according to a neutral formula. For example, may stop cars by pulling over every second or third vehicle.

The Site Must Be Safe and Identifiable – Law enforcement must take safety precautions such as proper lighting, warning signs, and signals. Also, law enforcement must use clearly identifiable official vehicles and be in uniform personnel are used. Lastly, the checkpoint must exhibit be clearly identified as a license or a DUI checkpoint. In other words, the checkpoint can’t be used randomly for anything the officers feel like investigating. Further, the checkpoint must also provide sufficient warning to allow motorists to stop safely at the checkpoint.

The Stop Must Be Brief – Under South Carolina law, there is no set time limit during which law enforcement can detain a driver at a checkpoint. Having said that, law enforcement must set up procedures to make sure that they aren’t holding drivers longer than needed. Whether the period of the stop was reasonable depends on the circumstances in each case.

The Checkpoint Must Be Effective –  In cases involving an arrest at a checkpoint, the prosecution must show evidence that the checkpoint “served the public’s interest.” Typically, the prosecution can prove effectiveness by showing that the traffic stops actually resulted in uncovering traffic violations (such as driving without a license) or criminal violations (such as drunk driving).

What To Do If You’re Stopped at a Checkpoint or Roadblock in South Carolina

If you’re stopped in South Carolina at a checkpoint or roadblock, here are some basic suggestions on how to handle yourself and your legal rights at a checkpoint:

Be Calm – Getting excited, acting out, or being disruptive is the surest way to get yourself singled out at a roadblock!

Cooperate But Don’t Incriminate Yourself – We’re aware of some “viral” videos online suggesting that you don’t have to roll your window down or talk to officers at a roadblock. While that may be true in other states, here in South Carolina you are likely to look “suspicious” if you don’t cooperate by rolling your window down or politely speaking with the officer. Having said that, you don’t have to answer any questions especially those that might incriminate you. For example, if you’re stopped at a “license” checkpoint, but the office starts to ask you questions about where you’ve been, where you’re going, or whether you’ve been drinking, these questions have nothing to do with whether you have a driver’s license. So, you may politely decline to answer these questions by telling the officer that you are exercising your right to remain silent. Even if it is a DUI checkpoint, you still don’t have to answer these questions. However, as a practical matter, law enforcement will probably pull you to the side to perform field sobriety tests even if you decline to talk.

If officers ask you to get out of your vehicle, you should cooperate. Otherwise, you may be charged with interfering with an investigation. Cooperating doesn’t mean that you have to perform any field sobriety tests. You should know those police officers have routinely misidentified sober drivers as having failed field sobriety tests, which is a good reason not to do them. However, if you refuse to perform field sobriety tests, you may be arrested for DUI anyway. Having said that, if you politely declined to answer any questions or perform any field sobriety tests, then law enforcement doesn’t have much evidence to prosecute you with after your arrest.

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