DWI/DUI Sobriety Road Blocks or Checkpoints
by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.
The Bill of Rights refers to the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, the fourth of which states that:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Thus the Constitution protects people from being stopped without a search warrant or at least “probable cause” that they have committed a crime.
The Michigan Supreme Court found sobriety checkpoints to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, in a split decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Michigan court. Although acknowledging that such roadblocks violate a fundamental constitutional right, Chief Justice Rehnquist argued that they are necessary in order to reduce drunk driving. That is, he argued that the end justifies the means. Attorney and law professor Lawrence Taylor refers to this as “the DUI exception to the Constitution.” 1
Dissenting justices emphasized that the Constitution doesn’t provide exceptions. "That stopping every car might make it easier to prevent drunken driving ... is an insufficient justification for abandoning the requirement of individualized suspicion," dissenting Justice Brennan insisted. 2
Chief Justice Rehnquist had argued that violating individual constitutional rights was justified because sobriety roadblocks were effective and necessary. But dissenting Justice Stevens pointed out that "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." 3 And even if roadblocks were effective, the fact that they work wouldn’t justify violating individuals’ constitutional rights, justices argued.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has made the DUI exemption to the Constitution, eleven states have found that sobriety checkpoints violate their own state constitutions or have outlawed them. In these states, individuals have more protections against unreasonable search and police sobriety roadblocks are prohibited.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which strongly promotes them, implies that sobriety roadblocks are legal throughout the entire United States without exception. It says that “the U.S. Supreme Court on June 14, 1990 upheld the use of sobriety checkpoints to detect and deter impaired drivers. Previous appeals to the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of such checkpoints had been declined, which allowed high state court rulings to stand. The June 14, 1990 ruling clearly upheld the constitutionality of such enforcement measures.” 4
MADD also dismisses those who question the use of sobriety checkpoints by asserting that “opponents of sobriety checkpoints tend to be those who drink and drive frequently and are concerned about being caught.” 5 MADD provides no evidence of this assertion and none has been found in any published research study. There are, however, published reports that opposition is especially strong among civil libertarians, judges, law enforcement leaders and conservatives. 6
There are many arguments both for and against the use of roadblocks in our effort to reduce drunk driving. For example, many law enforcement officials and researchers believe that roving patrols are much more effective and are a better use of scarce resources. People of good will can and do disagree on such important matters.
Unfortunately, MADD’s effort to discredit and marginalize those with whom it disagrees is unproductive and doesn‘t help us make the best decisions about how to reduce impaired and drunk driving, whether or not that involves police roadblocks.
Filed Under: Drinking and Driving