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DUI Checkpoints: Are They Justified (Still)?

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DUI Checkpoints: Are They Justified (Still)?

Official portrait of Justice William J. Brenna...

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Sobriety Checkpoints, Michigan v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990)

In 1986, the Michigan State Police Department created a sobriety checkpoint program aimed at reducing drunk driving within the state. The program included guidelines governing the location of roadblocks and the amount of publicity to be given to the operation. Before the first roadblock went into effect, Rick Sitz, a licensed Michigan driver, challenged the checkpoints and sought declaratory and injunctive relief. Sitz was victorious in the Michigan lower courts.  In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court held 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.”  Justice Rehnquist further justified his opinion by claiming that empirical evidence supported the effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints as a deterrent to drunk driving, thereby making the checkpoints necessary and effective.  Note that the majority decided that a deterrent effect is enough of a justification even if there is no evidence that the checkpoints are, in fact, effective.  Justice Rehnquist was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, O’Connor, Blackmun and White.

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.”  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.”

Twenty-one years later, DUI checkpoints have become a staple of local law enforcement efforts to curb drunk driving.  Despite scant evidence that DUI checkpoints work, M.A.D.D. continues to support these efforts arguing that the continued burden on civil rights is justified despite the dramatic and consistent decline of drunk driving and the successful stigmatization of the crime in society.  Perhaps they are misguided due to the copious amounts of money funneled to local law enforcement agencies.  States get grant money from the federal government to promote responsible driving. Whether the public is benefiting from the investment is debatable but the monetary benefit to law enforcement is not.  Additionally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) guidelines say DUI checkpoints could be efficiently staffed with six officers, but often DUI checkpoints employ multiple jurisdictions and far more than six (6) officers.  It is estimated those additional officers at a DUI checkpoint cost state and federal taxpayers $5.5 million in 2008-2009.

Some argue that DUI checkpoints are just an annoyance. The police, however, have taken the idea of looking for signs of inebriation far further, using checkpoints to make far more arrests for seatbelt violations, warrant arrests, driving under suspension and other offenses besides drunk driving.  The officers take full advantage of  looking inside your car and according the U.S. Supreme Court in Illinois v. Caballes,  law enforcement has the right to use dog-sniffing drugs to look for drugs.  You are being subjected to a very intrusive search on no legal grounds whatsoever because there are no “articulable facts” as required by the Fourth Amendment.  We have also seen the expansion of checkpoints for purposes beyond drunk driving.  Some states use checkpoints to enforce immigration policy, seatbelt laws or simply to check your papers.  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.

Dayton DUI attorney Charles M. Rowland II has long been an opponent of the unjustified intrusion into your liberty caused by a reliance on OVI checkpoints.  If you find yourself in need of a passionate defender of your rights, contact Charles M. Rowland II at (937)318-1DUI [318-1384] or 1-888-ROWLAND [1-888-769-5263].  You can also follow him at www.facebook.com/daytondui or on Twitter @DaytonDUI.  “All I do is DUI defense.”

Charles Rowland


Charles M. Rowland II has been representing the accused drunk driver for over 20 years. Contact him at (937) 318-1384 if you find yourself facing a DUI (now called OVI) charge.

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