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DUI Checkpoints: A legal, but narrow lane

Posted by Robert E. Heyman | Jun 22, 2010 | 0 Comments

While scanning the letters to the editor recently in the St Petersburg Times, I came upon a letter which was highly critical of the fact that the local police had notified the public in advance of the location and times they were planning on setting up a DUI checkpoint to apprehend drunk drivers.

While no one condones such behavior, there are numerous issues involved in how checkpoints can be operated while satisfying the constitutional rights we all share. These issues were addressed at length by the U.S. Supreme Court in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990). In Sitz, the Court discussed the “balancing” test that must be employed in recognizing the state's legitimate interest in eradicating the dangers posed by drunk drivers against the intrusion on an individual's privacy rights which any checkpoint must entail.

Like the letter writer, there are certainly many citizens who believe that police should pretty much be able to stop any driver at any time for no discernable reason. I still believe that the majority understands, as the Supreme Court has established many times, that a traffic stop does invoke fundamental 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. As a result, the inquiry has always been whether the stop and detention is “reasonable” – a term not always easily defined or agreed upon even by constitutional scholars.

In Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979), entirely random traffic stops were struck down as unreasonable. By the time the Court decided Michigan v. Sitz, law enforcement agencies had developed fairly standardized practices in setting up checkpoints – one of them which included prior notification of the public as to the location and duration of the checkpoint this the most effective way to intercept drunk drivers ??                 Probably not.

However, statistics obtained even before the notification process became standard indicated that, regardless of how they were run, checkpoints were not very efficient and resulted in the arrest of less than 4% of all drivers that were stopped and screened for possible impairment. Quite frankly, the public is better served with having more specially trained DUI officers on the roadways at the times most drunk drivers will take to the roads and highways than a high profile ( and highly inconvenient to most drivers ) roadblock. Unfortunately in these times of reduced police budgets, it appears the roadblock is here to stay. As a word to the wise, don't drink and drive and always designate a sober driver to take the wheel. Also, if you're looking to get to your destination on time, read the papers, and plan alternative routes if a roadblock is announced in your area.

About the Author

Robert E. Heyman

Bio Robert E. Heyman was born in Providence, RI, and grew up in Barrington, RI. He graduated from Barrington High School in 1974, and earned the rank of Eagle Scout. Following high school graduation, Mr. Heyman attended Northfield-Mt. Hermon Academy in Northfield, MA and thereafter attended co...


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