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Sobriety/DUI Checkpoints
History and Legality

Published by: Duiblock.com on 11/21/2010


In 1986, the Michigan State Police announced a new strategy to reduce the number of drunk drivers on the road. Their plan was to establish the first sobriety checkpoints in the country. Before the plan was scheduled to go into effect, Michigan resident Rick Sitz filed a lawsuit suit against the State Police as an unconstitutional infringement on the Fourth Amendment, which prevents unreasonable searches and seizures. Up to then, law enforcement had to have probable cause a crime was being committed. 

The Michigan courts agreed with Sitz that the sobriety checkpoints were an unlawful invasion of privacy and unconstitutional. The State Police appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court. Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz was argued before the Justices in 1990 and in a 6 to 3 decision, the Court found that the roadblocks did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion and stated, “no one can seriously dispute the magnitude of the drunken driving problem or the States’ interest in eradicating it….The weight bearing on the other scale—the measure of the intrusion on motorists stopped briefly at sobriety checkpoints—is slight.” 

While on one hand Justice Rehnquist acknowledged sobriety checkpoints constituted a “seizure” as determined by the Fourth Amendment, he concluded it was a “minimal intrusion on individual liberties,” the Constitutional equivalent of a little bit pregnant. 

In his dissenting opinion, Justice William Brennan, concluded “the findings of the trial court, based on an extensive record and affirmed by the Michigan Court of Appeals, indicate that the net effect of sobriety checkpoints on traffic safety is infinitesimal and possibly negative…That stopping every car might make it easier to prevent drunken driving is an insufficient justification for abandoning the requirement of individualized suspicion. The most disturbing aspect of the Court’s decision today is that it appears to give no weight to the citizen’s interest in freedom from suspicionless investigatory seizures.”

Justice Rehnquist further justified his opinion by claiming that empirical evidence provided by Michigan supported the effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints as a deterrent to drunk driving, thereby making the checkpoints necessary and effective.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens pointed out that a review by the Michigan trial court on sobriety checkpoints statistics, “based on an extensive record and affirmed by the Michigan Court of Appeals, indicate that the net effect of sobriety checkpoints on traffic safety is infinitesimal and possibly negative.”

The Supreme Court decision made sobriety checkpoints legal on a federal level and the case was sent back to the Michigan Supreme Court with instructions to change its decision accordingly. Instead, the Michigan Supreme Court Justices ran an end-around by finding that sobriety checkpoints, even though permissible under the United States Constitution, were in violation of Michigan’s state Constitution and therefore unlawful. 

Since the Supreme Court’s 1990 ruling, the use of sobriety, or DUI, checkpoints continues to be vigorously debated. Eleven other states—Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Oregon, Minnesota, Montana, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming—joined Michigan in determining the checkpoints were unlawful or in violation of state Constitutions.

On the surface, DUI checkpoints may seem innocuous and just an annoyance. The police set up a road block for the stated purpose of seeing if the driver shows signs of inebriation. But the officer also requests to see a drivers’ license and gets to look into the car. Another Supreme Court ruling in Illinois v. Caballes gives law enforcement the right to use dog-sniffing drugs to look for contraband completely out of sight. In other words, your car is essentially being search on no legal grounds whatsoever because there are no “articulable facts” as required by the Fourth Amendment; just on the off chance you might have something illegal in your car.

Even though there is no statistical proof that DUI checkpoints have any significant impact on drunk driving, they are unlikely to go away because they have become an important revenue stream for municipalities. While the justification for the checkpoints is to locate drunk drivers, police are much more likely to find an unlicensed driver, which allows them to then impound the car. 

So who pays for these checkpoints? Every year states get money from the federal government to promote responsible driving. California, for example, receives about $100 million. Out of that, $30 million is used to pay for curbing drunk driving, such as checkpoints. Whether the public is benefiting from the investment is debatable but cities sure are.

The Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley with California Watch found that in 2009, vehicle impounds at DUI checkpoints generated an estimated $40 million in towing fees and police fines, which is split between the cities and the towing companies.

Law enforcement also benefits. Since police departments tend not to assign on-duty officers to man the checkpoints, off-duty police officers earned $30 million in overtime pay for staffing the checkpoints. Of the total cost for setting up a checkpoint, more than 90 percent is from overtime pay. 

Additionally, although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) guidelines say DUI checkpoints could be efficiently staffed with six officers, in California police departments on average deploy 18 officers at each checkpoint. It is estimated those additional officers at a DUI checkpoint cost state and federal taxpayers $5.5 million in 2008-2009.

In 2005, an appellate court ruled that police cannot impound cars solely because the driver is unlicensed. And yet, they do. Since 2007, the percentage of vehicle seizures has increased 53 percent statewide in California. The Investigative Reporting Program found that in 2009 police impounded more than 24,000 cars and trucks at checkpoints. By comparison, they made 3,200 drunken driving arrests. Ironically, police do not typically seize the car of a suspected drunk driver, who is allowed to pick their cars up the next day. 

Some argue that DUI checkpoints are valuable because any drunk driver taken off the road is a potential life saved. If that’s all these checkpoints did, that argument would have moral merit. But in reality, checkpoints have become a slippery civil rights slope because stopping drunk drivers has become secondary to filling city coffers via ticket, towing, and car impound fees at the expense of guaranteed Constitutional protections. Just how far that slope erodes our civil rights remains to be seen. 

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