Sobriety checkpoints and the Fourth Amendment have a tense relationship.
Police in many states employ random checkpoints in order to catch drug and
alcohol impaired drivers, while the Fourth Amendment gives residents “the right to be secure
in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches
and seizures.” The Amendment continues that this cannot be violated
unless there is a valid warrant or probable cause.
How can the right to be free from unreasonable searches and checkpoints
without probable cause coexist? Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz
set out to answer that question.
Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz (1990)
The United States Supreme Court found, in a 6-3 decision, that sobriety
checkpoints are constitutional so long as they are properly conducted.
Chief Justice Rehnquist, who wrote the majority opinion, stated that the
benefits of drunk driving prevention outweighed the degree of intrusion
on motorists who are briefly stopped.
States That Outlaw Sobriety Roadblocks
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that
DUI checkpoints do not violate the constitution, ten states have exercised
their sovereignty and outlawed them, saying they violate their state constitution.
Those states include:
- Rhode Island
What is proper checkpoint procedure?
The majority opinion in
Sitz implied that in order to prevent DUI checkpoints from becoming overly intrusive,
thereby violating the Fourth Amendment, there must be certain checks in
place. Generally, each state has decided for itself what “proper
procedure” is. Most states follow these guidelines to some degree:
- The decision to conduct a checkpoint should be made at the supervisory level
Choosing vehicles to stop should not be left up to officer discretion,
but rather to preset rules (ex: every 4th vehicle)
- Roadblocks should never create unsafe road conditions or be conducted at
an unreasonable location
- The time and duration of the checkpoints should also be reasonable
- Individuals should be stopped only briefly at checkpoints, unless they
are being detained
- Checkpoints should be broadcast to the public ahead of time
Controversy has erupted in some areas,
such as Chicago, over claims that checkpoints sometimes target predominantly minority
areas even when predominantly white neighborhoods have a much higher DUI
rate. This type of conduct could, depending on motive, constitute racial
profiling – the use of race as grounds for suspecting someone of a crime.
In Georgia, DUI checkpoints are considered constitutional and occur regularly.
At a checkpoint, it is important to remember that you have not yet been
arrested and therefore do not have to give your consent to a search or
seizure. Knowing your rights is the best way to protect them.