Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz

496 US 444 (1990)

(The Drunk Driving Checkpoint Case)

 

Context

In an effort to reduce incidents of drunk driving, the Michigan State Police Department developed a program establishing roadblocks with drunk driving checkpoints throughout the state. Before the program actually went into effect, however, Michigan resident Rick Sitz challenged the program in court and sought declaratory and injunctive relief on the claim that the stops constituted an unreasonable intrusion of civilians’ privacy under the Fourth Amendment. Sitz and his fellow respondents argued that probable cause or reasonable suspicion were the only legal justifications for the kind of search and seizure that the checkpoints constituted. In their arguments, the respondents used the Court’s ruling from Treasury Employees v Von Raab, in which the Supreme Court determined that individuals’ rights to privacy must be considered when the government is considering an intrusion upon civilians’ Fourth Amendment rights for a special governmental need. Once the case reached the Supreme Court, the Justices determined in a 6-3 decision that the checkpoint stops did in fact constitute a reasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The slight intrusion caused to motorists, the Court held, in service of the larger goal of reducing accidents and deaths from drunk driving in the state was worth the reasonable search and seizure that the checkpoints imposed, especially since the program was found to be effective in deterring drunk driving in the state. The ruling in this case raised the issue of when the government could invoke the goal of public safety in justifying searches and seizures of its citizens and whether the government had too much freedom in this regard.


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Rehnquist, joined by White, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy

Concurrence: Blackmun

Dissent: Brennan, joined by Marshall

Dissent: Stevens, joined by Brennan, Marshall

 

Facts:

Petitioners, the Michigan Department of State Police and its Director, established a sobriety checkpoint pilot program in early 1986. The Director appointed a Sobriety Checkpoint Advisory Committee comprising representatives of the State Police force, local police forces, state prosecutors, and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Pursuant to its charge, the Advisory Committee created guidelines setting forth procedures governing checkpoint operations, site selection, and publicity.

Under the guidelines, checkpoints would be set up at selected sites along state roads. All vehicles passing through a checkpoint would be stopped and their drivers briefly examined for signs of intoxication. In cases where a checkpoint officer detected signs of intoxication, the motorist would be directed to a location out of the traffic flow where an officer would check the motorist's driver's license and car registration and, if warranted, conduct further sobriety tests. Should the field tests and the officer's observations suggest that the driver was intoxicated, an arrest would be made. All other drivers would be permitted to resume their journey immediately.

The first -- and to date the only -- sobriety checkpoint operated under the program was conducted in Saginaw County with the assistance of the Saginaw County Sheriff's Department. During the hour-and-fifteen-minute duration of the checkpoint's operation, 126 vehicles passed through the checkpoint. The average delay for each vehicle was approximately 25 seconds. Two drivers were detained for field sobriety testing, and one of the two was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. A third driver who drive through without stopping was pulled over by an officer in an observation vehicle and arrested for driving under the influence.      

Question:

Whether a State's use of highway sobriety checkpoints violates the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.    

Reasoning:

"Where a Fourth Amendment intrusion serves special governmental needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, it is necessary to balance the individual's privacy expectations against the Government's interests to determine whether it is impractical to require a warrant or some level of individualized suspicion in the particular context."

A Fourth Amendment "seizure" occurs when a vehicle is stopped at a checkpoint. The question thus becomes whether such seizures are "reasonable" under the Fourth Amendment.

No one can seriously dispute the magnitude of the drunken driving problem or the States' interest in eradicating it. Media reports of alcohol-related death and mutilation on the Nation's roads are legion.

Conversely, the weight bearing on the other scale -- the measure of the intrusion on motorists stopped briefly at sobriety checkpoints -- is slight. The trial court and the Court of Appeals accurately gauged the "objective" intrusion, measured by the duration of the seizure and the intensity of the investigation, as minimal.

We believe the Michigan courts misread our cases concerning the degree of "subjective intrusion" and the potential for generating fear and surprise. The "fear and surprise" to be considered are not the natural fear of one who has been drinking over the prospect of being stopped at a sobriety checkpoint but, rather, the fear and surprise engendered in law abiding motorists by the nature of the stop.

Here, checkpoints are selected pursuant to the guidelines, and uniformed police officers stop every approaching vehicle.

This case involves neither a complete absence of empirical data nor a challenge to random highway stops. During the operation of the Saginaw County checkpoint, the detention of each of the 126 vehicles that entered the checkpoint resulted in the arrest of two drunken drivers. Stated as a percentage, approximately 1.5 percent of the drivers passing through the checkpoint were arrested for alcohol impairment. In addition, an expert witness testified at the trial that experience in other States demonstrated that, on the whole, sobriety checkpoints resulted in drunken driving arrests of around 1 percent of all motorists stopped.            

Holding:

The balance of the State's interest in preventing drunken driving, the extent to which this system can reasonably be said to advance that interest, and the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists who are briefly stopped, weighs in favor of the state program. We therefore hold that it is consistent with the Fourth Amendment.    

 

Key Takeaway

Vehicles and all its passengers are seized when cars are stopped; however checkpoint stops are reasonable when the goal is to curb drunk driving because it serves a state interest, they are generally effective, and the intrusion isn't substantial. Checkpoints for drunk driving meet the balancing test requirements.


Court Syllabus:

Petitioners, the Michigan State Police Department and its Director, established a highway sobriety checkpoint program with guidelines governing checkpoint operations, site selection, and publicity. During the only operation to date, 126 vehicles passed through the checkpoint, the average delay per vehicle was 25 seconds, and two drivers were arrested for driving under the influence. The day before that operation, respondents, licensed Michigan drivers, filed suit in a county court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief from potential subjection to the checkpoints. After a trial, at which the court heard extensive testimony concerning, among other things, the "effectiveness" of such programs, the court applied the balancing test of Brown v. Texas, and ruled that the State's program violated the Fourth Amendment. The State Court of Appeals affirmed, agreeing with the lower court's findings that the State has a "grave and legitimate" interest in curbing drunken driving; that sobriety checkpoint programs are generally ineffective and, therefore, do not significantly further that interest; and that, while the checkpoints' objective intrusion on individual liberties is slight, their "subjective intrusion" is substantial.

Held: Petitioner's highway sobriety checkpoint program is consistent with the Fourth Amendment.

(a) United States v. Martinez-Fuerte-- which utilized a balancing test in upholding checkpoints for detecting illegal aliens -- and Brown v. Texas, supra, are the relevant authorities to be used in evaluating the constitutionality of the State's program. Treasury Employees v. Von Raab was not designed to repudiate this Court's prior cases dealing with police stops of motorists on public highways and, thus, does not forbid the use of a balancing test here.

(b) A Fourth Amendment "seizure" occurs when a vehicle is stopped at a checkpoint. Thus, the question here is whether such seizures are "reasonable."

(c) There is no dispute about the magnitude of, and the States' interest in eradicating, the drunken driving problem. The courts below accurately gauged the "objective" intrusion, measured by the seizure's duration and the investigation's intensity, as minimal. However, they misread this Court's cases concerning the degree of "subjective intrusion" and the potential for generating fear and surprise. The "fear and surprise" to be considered are not the natural fear of one who has been drinking over the prospect of being stopped at a checkpoint but, rather, the fear and surprise engendered in law abiding motorists by the nature of the particular stop, such as one made by a roving patrol operating on a seldom-traveled road. Here, checkpoints are selected pursuant to guidelines, and uniformed officers stop every vehicle. The resulting intrusion is constitutionally indistinguishable from the stops upheld in Martinez-Fuerte.

(d) The Court of Appeals also erred in finding that the program failed the "effectiveness" part of the Brown test. This balancing factor -- which Brown actually describes as "the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest" -- was not meant to transfer from politically accountable officials to the courts the choice as to which among reasonable alternative law enforcement techniques should be employed to deal with a serious public danger. Moreover, the court mistakenly relied on Martinez-Fuertenand Delaware v. Prouse to provide a basis for its "effectiveness" review. Unlike Delaware v. Prouse, this case involves neither random stops nor a complete absence of empirical data indicating that the stops would be an effective means of promoting roadway safety. And there is no justification for a different conclusion here than in Martinez-Fuerte, where the ratio of illegal aliens detected to vehicles stopped was approximately .5 percent, as compared with the approximately 1.5 percent detection ratio in the one checkpoint conducted by Michigan and with the 1 percent ratio demonstrated by other States' experience.