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Drunk Driving Sobriety Checkpoints

An increasingly prevalent practice used to detect the drunk driver involves the use of DUI roadblocks or sobriety checkpoints. Commonly, law enforcement agencies will set up a roadblock or sobriety checkpoint on a selected road or highway, much as is done with equipment safety checks or license/registration inspection. If the driver stopped at a sobriety checkpoint has slurred speech or breath alcohol odor, he will be asked to leave the car and perform field sobriety tests at the scene of the sobriety checkpointSobriety checkpoint laws will vary by state.

On June 14, 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court finally handed down its decision long-awaited by every DUI attorney on the constitutionality of DUI roadblocks. In Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990), the Court reversed the state appellate court and held that the checkpoint operation in question did not violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In a predictable 6-3 decision authored by Chief Justice Rehnquest, the Court acknowledged that roadblocks do constitute a "seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. However, the Chief Justice wrote, this must be viewed in the context of weighing the need and effectiveness of the roadblock against minimal intrusion on individual liberties. With demonstrated need and effectiveness, and minimal intrusion, sobriety checkpoints are constitutionally acceptable.

Respondents in Sitz had argued that any balancing tests were inappropriate: The sole question was whether the police had probable cause to stop any individual drivers. There must be a special governmental need beyond the normal need,'' respondents argued, before a balancing test is appropriate. Oddly, however, Rehnquist quickly dismissed this rather obvious point with almost no comment.

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