The use of DUI checkpoints—or roadblocks—designed to permit law enforcement to randomly and/or systematically stop motorists to determine if they are driving while under the influence has been the subject of considerable debate. Whereas some people assert that these roadblocks are unconstitutional, others refute that they are necessary to reduce the growing problem of drunk driving and act as a strong deterrent.
There has been recent attention given to the question of whether these police tools are effective.
A brief history of sobriety checkpoints
In 1986, the Michigan State Police Department introduced a new strategy to combat drunk driving: checkpoints to check motorists’ sobriety. However, one resident—Rick Sitz—filed a lawsuit claiming that these checkpoints violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The basis of his allegation was that no probable cause existed for officers to check a motorist’s sobriety.
The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court. In Michigan State Police v. Sitz, the Court—in a 6-3 decision—held that the roadblocks did not, in fact, violate the Fourth Amendment. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Rehnquist argued that the compelling government interest in curbing drunk driving significantly outweighed the slight intrusion on motorists. He added that the empirical evidence presented by Michigan supported sobriety checkpoints’ effectiveness as a deterrent to drunk driving.
Justice Brennan, in his dissent, argued that even an “infinitesimal” intrusion negatively impacts citizens’ freedoms from suspicionless investigatory seizures. Justice Stevens added that the evidence Justice Rehnquist cited indicated that the net effect of sobriety checkpoints on safety was “infinitesimal and possibly negative.”
Nevertheless, the Court legalized sobriety checkpoints at the federal level and remanded the case back to the Michigan Supreme Court with instructions to change its decision; however, the Court held that while these checkpoints were permissible under the US Constitution, they violated Michigan’s state Constitution.
Over the years, the use of DUI checkpoints continues to be the subject of intense debate. Eleven other states—including Minnesota—have determined that said checkpoints violated their state Constitutions. With respect to Minnesota, the State Supreme Court, in Ascher v. Commissioner of Public Safety, outlawed sobriety checkpoints as violating the state’s Constitution.
The financial costs of sobriety checkpoints
Each year, the federal government allocates money to states to promote responsible driving, and sobriety checkpoints are a part of this. However, sobriety checkpoints have also become an important local revenue stream. The Los Angeles Times reported that a 2009 study by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, found that, in California alone, sobriety checkpoints generate nearly $30 million annually in police fines and towing fees. Thus, whereas the justification for these roadblocks is to identify drunk drivers, police are more likely to find an unlicensed driver which gives them the authority to impound the vehicle for up to 30 days, thus resulting in the aforementioned fees. Additionally, since most police officers who man these roadblocks are off-duty, overtime pay plays a significant factor in costs.
The debate rages on
In a recent article out of North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer addressed this question. Whereas police leaders believe that DUI checkpoints are, in fact, effective for targeting drunk drivers, the fact that arrests or citations for other infractions, drugs, or outstanding warrants are made bring light not only to the efficacy of these roadblocks in the fight against drunk driving but also to the aforementioned constitutional concerns. The article states that during one five-hour sobriety checkpoint last August, 15 officers made just one arrest for DWI along with 42 other violations that ranged from expired license plates to outstanding arrest warrants. Many police leaders claim that even if no DUI arrests are made, that other criminals are found justify their continued use.
The bottom line: are they worth it?
Some experts claim that they are not cost-effective; however, proponents assert that not everything—especially social problems—should be viewed as a matter of cost-effectiveness.
National anti-DUI groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) support these checkpoints. They assert that high police visibility provides a significant deterrent.
Whether Minnesota will climb on board with the majority of states who use these checkpoints remains to be seen. For now, they remain unconstitutional.