Today in 1990: The Supreme Court upholds DWI traffic checkpoints

June 14, 2013

Today in Legal HistorySummer is finally here, which means vacations, outdoor parties, and bonfires.  To many people, it also means more alcohol consumption.

Law enforcement is well aware of that last one, and, as a consequence, driving while intoxicated (DWI) enforcement is often heightened during the summer months.

If you happen to live in a state that has implemented such practices, you could be subject to a police sobriety checkpoint this summer.

These checkpoints involve the police setting up a roadblock and stopping every vehicle or every certain interval of vehicles (second, third, fifth, sixth, etc) to find any drivers that may be too intoxicated to drive.

If you are a lawyer (or a law student), and you’ve ever been subject to a police sobriety checkpoint, you may have wondered whether they are constitutional.

They are, and the Supreme Court ruling that held as much was decided 23 years ago today, on June 14, 1990.

The case, Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, upheld the Michigan State Police Department’s highway sobriety checkpoint program as constitutional.

The challengers to the law claimed that the stops constituted unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, in that the stops were conducted not only without a warrant, but also without any probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

A Fourth Amendment seizure occurs “when there is a governmental termination of freedom of movement through means intentionally applied.”  Thus, any traffic stop of a vehicle conducted by law enforcement is a Fourth Amendment seizure, and must therefore be “reasonable.”

There was no disagreement between the law’s challengers and its defenders, or between the Supreme Court majority and dissent, that the police stops conducted during the course of a sobriety checkpoint were, in fact, seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

The divergence was instead over whether these seizures were “reasonable.”

Normally, for a police stop to be “reasonable,” there needs to be probable cause or, under Terry v. Ohio and its progeny, “reasonable suspicion.”  Both standards require there to be some individualized, “articulable facts” to support the stop.

With the sobriety checkpoint, however, no individualized facts are used to stop a vehicle.  Every (or every nth) vehicle is stopped.

So how did the Sitz majority reach the conclusion that the stops were reasonable?  By using a “balancing test” that was born out of a series of cases culminating with 1977’s U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte.

Martinez-Fuerte (and its forebears) dealt with the constitutionality of permanent police checkpoints to check for unlawful immigrants.

The balancing test used in Martinez-Fuerte weighed Fourth Amendment interests against state interests in combating unlawful border crossings.

This balancing test was used in Sitz by changing the state interests to “fighting drunk driving.”

Naturally, every one of the opinions noted that the state has a very strong interest in fighting drunk driving and its harmful impact.

To the majority, when this state interest was balanced against individual Fourth Amendment rights lost – an insignificant inconvenience of an average delay of 25 seconds per driver – the more prevailing interest seemed perfectly clear.

But the majority viewed Fourth Amendment interests differently than the dissent, which found the fact that the sobriety checkpoints were conducted at random, by surprise, and in the middle of the night particularly troubling.

To the dissenting Justice Stevens, the Fourth Amendment interest at stake in the balancing test was not only a minor 25 second inconvenience, but “the citizen’s interest in freedom from random, unannounced investigatory seizures.”

Although Justice Stevens’ position ended up being on the losing side of history, he may have been on to something.

After all, if a Supreme Court majority can view a police stop of a vehicle as nothing more than a 25 second inconvenience, could a future Supreme Court majority find a brief police search of every house on a certain block to be nothing more than a 45 second inconvenience?

But let’s just hope that such a case never needs deciding by the Supreme Court.