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Law School Case Brief

Mich. Dep't of State Police v. Sitz - 496 U.S. 444, 110 S. Ct. 2481 (1990)


The three prong test for determining the constitutionality of a sobriety checkpoint plan involved balancing the state's interest in preventing accidents caused by drunk drivers, the effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints in achieving that goal, and the level of intrusion on an individual's privacy caused by the checkpoints. 


The Michigan Department of State Police established a sobriety checkpoint pilot program under guidelines drafted by an advisory committee, which guidelines governed checkpoint operation, site selection, and publicity, and provided in part that (1) checkpoints would be set up along state roads at sites selected in accordance with the guidelines; (2) all vehicles passing through a checkpoint would be stopped and their drivers briefly examined for signs of intoxication; (3) if such signs were detected, the driver would be directed to a location out of the traffic flow where his or her license and registration would be checked, further sobriety tests would be conducted if warranted, and, if the field tests and the police officer's observations suggested that the driver was intoxicated, an arrest would be made; and (4) all other drivers would be permitted to resume their journeys immediately.

One checkpoint was conducted under the program, which checkpoint was in operation for 75 minutes, during which time 126 vehicles passed through, each vehicle being delayed an average of about 25 seconds; two drivers were detained for field sobriety testing, one of these drivers was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, and a third driver who drove through without stopping was pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.

On the day before the operation of the checkpoint, a group of licensed Michigan drivers filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Michigan and sought declaratory and injunctive relief from potential subjection to the checkpoints. The Circuit Court (1) ruled that the checkpoint program violated both the Federal Constitution's Fourth Amendment and a provision of the state constitution, as the court found that (a) although the state had a legitimate interest in curbing drunk driving, sobriety checkpoints are not an effective means of achieving that goal, given the statistically low arrest rate, and (b) although the objective intrusion caused by the checkpoints, measured by the duration of the seizure and the intensity of the investigation, was minimal, the subjective intrusion on liberty interests, in terms of potential to generate fear and surprise to motorists, was substantial; and accordingly (2) entered an order permanently enjoining the implementation of the program.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals of Michigan affirmed, as it (1) found that the Circuit Court's findings were not clearly erroneous, (2) concluded that the checkpoint program violated the Fourth Amendment, and (3) ruled that since the state constitution offered at least the same protection as the Fourth Amendment, the checkpoints also violated the state constitution. The Supreme Court of Michigan denied the state police department's application for leave to appeal. Certiorari review was sought in the United States Supreme Court.


Was the sobriety checkpoint program a reasonable search?




The judgment finding that the State's sobriety checkpoints were unconstitutional was reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Court's opinion because the proper analysis was a three prong test balancing the state's grave interest in curbing drunk driving, the effectiveness of the stops, and the insubstantial subjective intrusion on individual liberties. The Court held that the Michigan sobriety checkpoints were reasonable seizures which did not violate the Federal Constitution's Fourth Amendment, as the balance among the state's interest in preventing drunk driving, the extent to which the checkpoint program could reasonably be said to advance that interest, and the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists, weighed in favor of that program, given that (1) the magnitude of the drunken driving problem and the states' interest in eradicating it were indisputable; (2) the "objective" intrusion resulting from the checkpoint, measured by the duration of the seizure and the intensity of the investigation, was minimal; (3) the "subjective" intrusion resulting from the checkpoint program, which was to be evaluated in terms of the fear and surprise engendered in law-abiding motorists by the nature of the stop, not the natural fear of one who has been drinking over the prospect of being stopped at a sobriety checkpoint, was indistinguishable for constitutional purposes from that resulting from border checkpoints which had been held proper in United States v Martinez-Fuerte (1976) 428 US 543, 49 L Ed 2d 1116, 96 S Ct 3074; and (4) the advancement of the state's interest in preventing drunken driving was sufficiently shown by (a) the fact that, in the one checkpoint conducted under the program, approximately 1.5 percent of all the drivers stopped were arrested for drunk driving, and (b) expert testimony that experience in other states demonstrated that checkpoints resulted in the arrest of about 1 percent of all drivers stopped.

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