As readers of this blog know, I've railed long and hard in the past about the ineffectiveness and unconstitutionality of DUI roadblocks (or, to use the government's PR term, "sobriety checkpoints"). To begin with, they are illegal — a clear and blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment. From my earlier post, "DUI Sobriety Checkpoints: Unconstitutional?":
The Constitution of the United States pretty clearly says that police can't just stop someone and conduct an investigation unless there are "articulable facts" indicating possible criminal activity. So how can they do exactly that with DUI roadblocks?
Good question. And it was raised in the case of Michigan v. Sitz (496 U.S. 444), in which the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed a decision of the Michigan Supreme Court striking down drunk driving roadblocks as unconstitutional. In a 6-3 decision, the Court reversed the Michigan court, holding that roadblocks were constitutionally permissible. Chief Justice Rehnquist began his majority opinion by admitting that DUI roadblocks (aka "sobriety checkpoints") do, in fact, constitute a "seizure" within the language of the 4th Amendment. In other words, yes, it's a blatant violation of the Constitution. However….
However, it's only a little one, and there's all this "carnage" on the highways MADD tells us we've got to do something about. The "minimal intrusion on individual liberties", he wrote, must be "weighed" against the need for and effectiveness of roadblocks. In other words, the ends justify the (illegal) means….aka, "The DUI exception to the Constitution".
The dissenting justices pointed out that the Constitution doesn't make exceptions: The sole question is whether the police had probable cause to stop the individual driver. As Justice Brennan wrote, "That stopping every car might make it easier to prevent drunken driving…is an insufficient justification for abandoning the requirement of individualized suspicion." Brennan concluded by noting that "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 investigatory seizures".
Rehnquist's justification for ignoring the Constitution rested on the assumption that DUI roadblocks were "necessary" and "effective". Are they? As Justice Stevens wrote in his own dissenting opinion, the Michigan court had already reviewed the statistics on DUI sobriety checkpoints/roadblocks: "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".
So ignoring our Constitution for the moment (an increasingly common practice), are these roadblocks in fact "necessary" and "effective"?
As I've repeatedly pointed out in past posts (e.g., "Do DUI Roadblocks Work?", "Do DUI Roadblocks Work: Part 2"), the facts clearly indicate they are not. In fact, the main purpose now appears to be as a tool for raising revenue from fines for expired licenses or registration, broken tailights, not using seat belts, etc. (see "Roadblocks for Fun and Profit").
So how do you justify the continuation of roadblocks? Well, consider the following recent news story:
Are DUI Checkpoints a Good Idea?
Fargo, ND – Oct. 8 It's been two years since Fargo police began conducting sobriety checkpoints, and the operation is being called a success despite some checkpoints yielding no arrests.
"The deterrent value of the checkpoint has already been accomplished before the checkpoint starts — people decide not to drink and drive", said Sgt. Mathew Sanders. "The operation is not about the number of driving under the influence arrests made, but instead, it's about raising awareness to deter people from drinking and driving." (Emphasis added)
So, let's see….DUI roadblocks are a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. But that's ok, because they're so good at identifying drunk drivers. But actually they're not. Well, ok, but at least they "raise awareness".
Maybe we've got something here….How about roadblocks to check for current auto insurance — to "deter" those without valid coverage from driving? Roadblocks to check everyone for driver's licenses? Unpaid parking tickets? Heck, we can keep drug dealers off the streets if we can stop everyone to see if there are drugs in the car. Or how about…..