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"Stop! In the name of love."---The Supremes

The Case that made Sobriety Checkpoints Legal:
Michigan vs. Sitz (1990)

CLICK HERE for the complete court's decision

Here is Justice Steven's dissenting view, first:

JUSTICE STEVENS, with whom JUSTICE BRENNAN and JUSTICE MARSHALL join as to Parts I and II, dissenting.

A sobriety checkpoint is usually operated at night at an unannounced location. Surprise is crucial to its method. The test operation conducted by the Michigan State Police and the Saginaw County Sheriff's Department began shortly after midnight and lasted until about 1 a.m. During that period, the 19 officers participating in the operation made two arrests and stopped and questioned 124 other unsuspecting and innocent drivers.1 It is, of course, not known how many arrests would have been made during that period if those officers had been engaged in normal patrol activities. However, the findings of the trial court, based on an extensive record and affirmed by the Michigan Court of Appeals, indicate that the net effect of sobriety checkpoints on traffic safety is infinitesimal and possibly negative.

Indeed, the record in this case makes clear that a decision holding these suspicionless seizures unconstitutional would not impede the law enforcement community's remarkable progress in reducing the death toll on our highways.2 Because [496 U.S. 444, 461] the Michigan program was patterned after an older program in Maryland, the trial judge gave special attention to that State's experience. Over a period of several years, Maryland operated 125 checkpoints; of the 41,000 motorists passing through those checkpoints, only 143 persons (0.3%) were arrested.3 The number of man-hours devoted to these [496 U.S. 444, 462] operations is not in the record, but it seems inconceivable that a higher arrest rate could not have been achieved by more conventional means.4 Yet, even if the 143 checkpoint arrests were assumed to involve a net increase in the number of drunken driving arrests per year, the figure would still be insignificant by comparison to the 71,000 such arrests made by Michigan State Police without checkpoints in 1984 alone. See App. to Pet. for Cert. 97a.

Any relationship between sobriety checkpoints and an actual reduction in highway fatalities is even less substantial than the minimal impact on arrest rates. As the Michigan Court of Appeals pointed out: "Maryland had conducted a study comparing traffic statistics between a county using checkpoints and a control county. The results of the study showed that alcohol-related accidents in the checkpoint county decreased by ten percent, whereas the control county saw an eleven percent decrease; and while fatal accidents in the control county fell from sixteen to three, fatal accidents in the checkpoint county actually doubled from the prior year." 170 Mich. App. 433, 443, 429 N. W. 2d 180, 184 (1988).

In light of these considerations, it seems evident that the Court today misapplies the balancing test announced in Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, 50-51 (1979). The Court overvalues the law enforcement interest in using sobriety checkpoints, undervalues the citizen's interest in freedom from random, announced investigatory seizures, and mistakenly assumes that there is "virtually no difference" between a routine stop at a permanent, fixed checkpoint and a [496 U.S. 444, 463] surprise stop at a sobriety checkpoint. I believe this case is controlled by our several precedents condemning suspicionless random stops of motorists for investigatory purposes. Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979); United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873 (1975); United States v. Ortiz, 422 U.S. 891 (1975); Almeida-Sanchez v. United States, 413 U.S. 266 (1973); cf. Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 153-154 (1925).


There is a critical difference between a seizure that is preceded by fair notice and one that is effected by surprise. See Wyman v. James, 400 U.S. 309, 320-321 (1971); United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543, 559 (1976); Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U.S. 499, 513-514 (1978) (STEVENS, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). That is one reason why a border search, or indeed any search at a permanent and fixed checkpoint, is much less intrusive than a random stop. A motorist with advance notice of the location of a permanent checkpoint has an opportunity to avoid the search entirely, or at least to prepare for, and limit, the intrusion on her privacy.

No such opportunity is available in the case of a random stop or a temporary checkpoint, which both depend for their effectiveness on the element of surprise. A driver who discovers an unexpected checkpoint on a familiar local road will be startled and distressed. She may infer, correctly, that the checkpoint is not simply "business as usual," and may likewise infer, again correctly, that the police have made a discretionary decision to focus their law enforcement efforts upon her and others who pass the chosen point.

This element of surprise is the most obvious distinction between the sobriety checkpoints permitted by today's majority and the interior border checkpoints approved by this Court in Martinez-Fuerte. The distinction casts immediate doubt upon the majority's argument, for Martinez-Fuerte is the only case in which we have upheld suspicionless seizures [496 U.S. 444, 464] of motorists. But the difference between notice and surprise is only one of the important reasons for distinguishing between permanent and mobile checkpoints. With respect to the former, there is no room for discretion in either the timing or the location of the stop - it is a permanent part of the landscape. In the latter case, however, although the checkpoint is most frequently employed during the hours of darkness on weekends (because that is when drivers with alcohol in their blood are most apt to be found on the road), the police have extremely broad discretion in determining the exact timing and placement of the roadblock.5

There is also a significant difference between the kind of discretion that the officer exercises after the stop is made. A check for a driver's license, or for identification papers at an immigration checkpoint, is far more easily standardized than is a search for evidence of intoxication. A Michigan officer who questions a motorist at a sobriety checkpoint has virtually unlimited discretion to detain the driver on the basis [496 U.S. 444, 465] of the slightest suspicion. A ruddy complexion, an unbuttoned shirt, bloodshot eyes, or a speech impediment may suffice to prolong the detention. Any driver who had just consumed a glass of beer, or even a sip of wine, would almost certainly have the burden of demonstrating to the officer that his or her driving ability was not impaired.6

Finally, it is significant that many of the stops at permanent checkpoints occur during daylight hours, whereas the sobriety checkpoints are almost invariably operated at night. A seizure followed by interrogation and even a cursory search at night is surely more offensive than a daytime stop that is almost as routine as going through a tollgate. Thus we thought it important to point out that the random stops at issue in Ortiz frequently occurred at night. 422 U.S., at 894.

These fears are not, as the Court would have it, solely the lot of the guilty. See ante, at 452. To be law abiding is not necessarily to be spotless, and even the most virtuous can be unlucky. Unwanted attention from the local police need not be less discomforting simply because one's secrets are not the stuff of criminal prosecutions. Moreover, those who have found - by reason of prejudice or misfortune - that encounters with the police may become adversarial or unpleasant without good cause will have grounds for worrying at any stop designed to elicit signs of suspicious behavior. Being stopped by the police is distressing even when it should not be terrifying, and what begins mildly may by happenstance turn severe.

For all these reasons, I do not believe that this case is analogous to Martinez-Fuerte. In my opinion, the sobriety checkpoints are instead similar to - and in some respects more intrusive than - the random investigative stops that the Court held unconstitutional in Brignoni-Ponce and Prouse. In the latter case the Court explained: [496 U.S. 444, 466]

We accordingly held that the State must produce evidence comparing the challenged seizure to other means of law enforcement, so as to show that the seizure


The Court, unable to draw any persuasive analogy to Martinez-Fuerte, rests its decision today on application of a more general balancing test taken from Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47 (1979). In that case the appellant, a pedestrian, had been stopped for questioning in an area of El Paso, Texas, that had "a high incidence of drug traffic" because he "looked suspicious." Id., at 49. He was then arrested and convicted for refusing to identify himself to police officers. We set aside his conviction because the officers stopped him when they lacked any reasonable suspicion that he was engaged in criminal activity. In our opinion, we stated:

The gravity of the public concern with highway safety that is implicated by this case is, of course, undisputed.7 [496 U.S. 444, 468] Yet, that same grave concern was implicated in Delaware v. Prouse. Moreover, I do not understand the Court to have placed any lesser value on the importance of the drug problem implicated in Brown v. Texas or on the need to control the illegal border crossings that were at stake in Almeida-Sanchez and its progeny.8 A different result in this case must be justified by the other two factors in the Brown formulation.

As I have already explained, I believe the Court is quite wrong in blithely asserting that a sobriety checkpoint is no more intrusive than a permanent checkpoint. In my opinion, unannounced investigatory seizures are, particularly when [496 U.S. 444, 469] they take place at night, the hallmark of regimes far different from ours;9 the surprise intrusion upon individual liberty is not minimal. On that issue, my difference with the Court may amount to nothing less than a difference in our respective evaluations of the importance of individual liberty, a serious, albeit inevitable, source of constitutional disagreement.10 On the degree to which the sobriety checkpoint seizures advance the public interest, however, the Court's position is wholly indefensible.

The Court's analysis of this issue resembles a business decision that measures profits by counting gross receipts and ignoring expenses. The evidence in this case indicates that sobriety checkpoints result in the arrest of a fraction of one percent of the drivers who are stopped,11 but there is absolutely no evidence that this figure represents an increase over the number of arrests that would have been made by using the same law enforcement resources in conventional patrols.12 Thus, although the gross number of arrests is more [496 U.S. 444, 470] than zero, there is a complete failure of proof on the question whether the wholesale seizures have produced any net advance in the public interest in arresting intoxicated drivers.

Indeed, the position adopted today by the Court is not one endorsed by any of the law enforcement authorities to whom the Court purports to defer, see ante, at 453-454. The Michigan police do not rely, as the Court does, ante, at 454-455, on the arrest rate at sobriety checkpoints to justify the stops made there. Colonel Hough, the commander of the Michigan State Police and a leading proponent of the checkpoints, admitted at trial that the arrest rate at the checkpoints was "very low." 1 Record 87. Instead, Colonel Hough and the State have maintained that the mere threat of such arrests is sufficient to deter drunken driving and so to reduce the accident rate.13 The Maryland police officer who testified [496 U.S. 444, 471] at trial took the same position with respect to his State's program.14 There is, obviously, nothing wrong with a law enforcement technique that reduces crime by pure deterrence without punishing anybody; on the contrary, such an approach is highly commendable. One cannot, however, prove its efficacy by counting the arrests that were made. One must instead measure the number of crimes that were avoided. Perhaps because the record is wanting, the Court simply ignores this point.

The Court's sparse analysis of this issue differs markedly from Justice Powell's opinion for the Court in Martinez-Fuerte. He did not merely count the 17,000 arrests made at the San Clemente checkpoint in 1973, 428 U.S., at 554; he also carefully explained why those arrests represented a net benefit to the law enforcement interest at stake.15 Common [496 U.S. 444, 472] sense, moreover, suggests that immigration checkpoints are more necessary than sobriety checkpoints: There is no reason why smuggling illegal aliens should impair a motorist's driving ability, but if intoxication did not noticeably affect driving ability it would not be unlawful. Drunken driving, unlike smuggling, may thus be detected absent any checkpoints. A program that produces thousands of otherwise impossible arrests is not a relevant precedent for a program that produces only a handful of arrests which would be more easily obtained without resort to suspicionless seizures of hundreds of innocent citizens.16 [496 U.S. 444, 473]


The most disturbing aspect of the Court's decision today is that it appears to give no weight to the citizen's interest in freedom from suspicionless unannounced investigatory seizures. Although the author of the opinion does not reiterate his description of that interest as "diaphanous," see Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S., at 666 (REHNQUIST, J., dissenting), the Court's opinion implicitly adopts that characterization. On the other hand, the Court places a heavy thumb on the law enforcement interest by looking only at gross receipts instead of net benefits. Perhaps this tampering with the scales of justice can be explained by the Court's obvious concern about the slaughter on our highways and a resultant tolerance for policies designed to alleviate the problem by "setting an example" of a few motorists. This possibility prompts two observations.

First, my objections to random seizures or temporary checkpoints do not apply to a host of other investigatory procedures that do not depend upon surprise and are unquestionably permissible. These procedures have been used to address other threats to human life no less pressing than the threat posed by drunken drivers. It is, for example, common practice to require every prospective airline passenger, or every visitor to a public building, to pass through a metal detector that will reveal the presence of a firearm or an explosive. Permanent, non discretionary checkpoints could be used to control serious dangers at other publicly operated facilities. Because concealed weapons obviously represent one such substantial threat to public safety,17 I would suppose [496 U.S. 444, 474] that all subway passengers could be required to pass through metal detectors, so long as the detectors were permanent and every passenger was subjected to the same search.18 Likewise, I would suppose that a State could condition access to its toll roads upon not only paying the toll but also taking a uniformly administered breathalyzer test. That requirement might well keep all drunken drivers off the highways that serve the fastest and most dangerous traffic. This procedure would not be subject to the constitutional objections that control this case: The checkpoints would be permanently fixed, the stopping procedure would apply to all users of the toll road in precisely the same way, and police officers would not be free to make arbitrary choices about which neighborhoods should be targeted or about which individuals should be more thoroughly searched. Random, suspicionless seizures designed to search for evidence of firearms, drugs, or intoxication belong, however, in a fundamentally different category. These seizures play upon the detained individual's reasonable expectations of privacy, injecting a suspicionless search into a context where none would normally occur. The imposition that seems diaphanous today may be intolerable tomorrow. See Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 635 (1886). [496 U.S. 444, 475]

Second, sobriety checkpoints are elaborate, and disquieting, publicity stunts. The possibility that anybody, no matter how innocent, may be stopped for police inspection is nothing if not attention getting. The shock value of the checkpoint program may be its most effective feature: Lieutenant Cotten of the Maryland State Police, a defense witness, testified that "the media coverage . . . has been absolutely overwhelming . . . . Quite frankly we got benefits just from the controversy of the sobriety checkpoints."19 Insofar [496 U.S. 444, 476] as the State seeks to justify its use of sobriety checkpoints on the basis that they dramatize the public interest in the prevention of alcohol-related accidents, the Court should heed JUSTICE SCALIA'S comment upon a similar justification for a drug screening program:

This is a case that is driven by nothing more than symbolic state action - an insufficient justification for an otherwise unreasonable program of random seizures. Unfortunately, the Court is transfixed by the wrong symbol - the illusory prospect of punishing countless intoxicated motorists - when it should keep its eyes on the road plainly marked by the Constitution.

I respectfully dissent--Justice Paul Stevens

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