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DUI Checkpoints Constitutional?

Flickr User: Oklahoma County Sheriff

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees our right against unreasonable searches and seizures. The amendment specifically requires search and arrest warrants be judicially sanctioned and supported by what’s referred to as probable cause.

If that’s so, then doesn’t it seem a bit unconstitutional for law enforcement to put up DUI checkpoints? After all, what is their probable cause for stopping and questioning each car on the road?

Good question—a question that was raised in the case of Michigan v. Sitz—where the Michigan Supreme Court deemed DUI roadblocks as unconstitutional. In a 6-3 decision, however, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Michigan court, holding that they were constitutionally permissible.

So just what are the arguments for and against DUI checkpoints being constitutional?

Former Chief Justice Rehnquist (active at the time) began his majority opinion by admitting that DUI sobriety checkpoints do, in fact, constitute a “seizure” within the language of the Fourth Amendment. He recognized the validity in the state of Michigan initially ruling checkpoints unconstitutional, but went on to explain why the Supreme Court wouldn’t hold it as such.

Rehnquist continued to say that DUI checkpoints are only a minor invasion of one’s rights, and that something needed to be done about the “carnage” on the highways caused by drunk drivers. The “minimal intrusion on individual liberties,” Rehnquist wrote, must be “weighed” against the need for — and effectiveness of — DUI roadblocks.

Rehnquist’s justification for ignoring the Constitution rested on the assumption that DUI roadblocks were “necessary” and “effective.”

In other words, Rehnquist argues that the ends justify the means.

The dissenting justices argued that police are without probable cause to stop individual drivers.

Justice Brennan wrote, “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.”

The case was sent back to the Michigan Supreme Court to change its decision accordingly, but the Michigan Supreme Court did not fall in line.

Michigan decided though now permissible under the U.S. Constitution, DUI checkpoints were not permissible under the Michigan State Constitution, and ruled again in favor of the defendant.

“If you won’t protect our citizens, we will,” was the message Michigan sent to Justice Rehnquist. A small number of states have since followed Michigan’s example.

In the state of Arizona, DUI checkpoints are constitutional…just another reason you should never drink and drive!

This post was intended to provide general information only and is not intended as specific legal advice. You should not rely upon this information alone, but should consult legal counsel regarding the application of the laws and regulations discussed and as applied to your specific case or circumstance.