What police must do to make DUI spot checks constitutionally permissible
The U.S. Constitution protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures, but although a motor vehicle stop is a form of seizure, it is not fully protected by the Fourth Amendment. In Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz (1990), the U.S. Supreme Court held that sobriety checkpoints, under appropriate conditions, do not violate the Fourth Amendment.
In writing for the majority of the Court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist acknowledged that sobriety checkpoints infringe on a person's constitutional rights, but that the State of Michigan had a substantial governmental interest in reducing the incidents of drunken driving.
To decide the underlying case, the trial court performed a balancing test derived from the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Brown v. Texas (1979). The test 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 Sitz decision stressed the importance of reasonable and appropriate guidelines governing checkpoint operations, site selection and publicizing their utilization.
In Connecticut v. Boisvert (1996), the Connecticut Appellate Court held that roadside sobriety checkpoints do not violate the Connecticut Constitution's provision protecting people against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Connecticut Supreme Court declined to review the Appellate Court's decision, making Boisvert the controlling law in Connecticut as it relates to sobriety checkpoints.
In upholding the constitutionally of sobriety checkpoints, both the U.S. Supreme Court and Connecticut's Appellate Court stated these stops had to be performed in a reasonable manner. In judging what is reasonable, courts generally look to such factors as the length and nature of the stop, the neutral criteria utilized to conduct the stop (no persons were arbitrarily singled out for detention and/or investigation), and whether established, reasonable procedures were followed.
The Connecticut State Policy Administration and Operations Manual provides guidelines for undertaking sobriety checkpoints on state highways. In order for a checkpoint to be reasonable, officers must follow the manual's guidelines requiring notice of the operation be provided to the media at least three days in advance and officers asking all detained drivers the same initial questions.
Additionally, the chosen location must have a history of traffic violations and accidents, should be a road traveled by potential violators, and be clearly visible and marked by the police. Further, police officers must use a neutral formula for stopping drivers, such as every 8th vehicle. Random stops would not be constitutionally permissible, while well conceived and properly executed checkpoints would be acceptable.
If a court finds a checkpoint substantially conformed to the guidelines, but was technically deficient (e.g., the news release notifying the public of the sobriety checkpoint failed to mention the planned date and time), the court could still find the roadblock constitutionally permissible.
The most prudent course of action is to avoid drinking and driving so as to obviate the need for expending considerable sums of money defending yourself against these charges, and to reduce the incidents of serious injury and death caused by drunk drivers.
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