By Freedom Newspapers
“Opponents of sobriety checkpoints tend to be those who drink and drive frequently and are concerned about being caught.”
That’s what Mothers Against Drunk Drivers says. And that’s correct, or as correct and logical as it is to say that only pornographers oppose obscenity laws, communists oppose blacklists and terrorists oppose the Patriot Act.
But at the risk of sounding like a bunch of defensive drunks, we’d like to point out as we enter DUI-checkpoint season that police should avoid the tactic for two reasons: They’re relatively ineffective, and they violate our freedom under the Constitution.
First, the police can catch drunken drivers without checkpoints.
Police often are reluctant to set up checkpoints because they say it is inefficient and actually yields few arrests, according to studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and researcher H.L. Ross.
A much more effective approach is large-scale, roving patrols spread out over wide areas, which find more erratic drivers than clusters at a few set points.
In the largest DUI checkpoint operation that’s been studied, Tennessee set up 882 checkpoints throughout the state over the course of a year, stopping 144,299 drivers. The result of all that work: 773 DUI arrests.
Proponents also argue that widespread checkpoints are a greater deterrent. As a paper put out last year by the Transportation Research Board has it, “highly publicized, highly visible, and frequent sobriety checkpoints reduce impaired driving fatal crashes.”
This may well be true, but the reality is that few police departments have the funding to be omnipresent with frequent checkpoints, and, do we really want them to be?
The second and crucial reason to avoid the tactic is it endangers our freedoms under the Constitution, particularly regarding Fourth Amendment protections.
Current law was set in 1990, when the Supreme Court upheld DUI checkpoints in Michigan v. Sitz. Previously, the court had only permitted checkpoints for border control purposes.
In order to allow DUI checkpoints, the court had to ignore its own history and logic.
Americans have the Fourth Amendment right to be secure against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” This means that police must have a reason — an “articulable and reasonable suspicion,” in the court’s words — to stop you. A checkpoint by its nature involves arbitrary searches of people who have done nothing to arouse suspicion.
Checkpoint proponents argue these aren’t really searches, that they’re an administrative function to ensure traffic safety. But in U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte in 1976, the Supreme Court decided that “checkpoint stops are ‘seizures’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.”
If checkpoints, then, are seizures conducted without any reasonable suspicion, how could they square with the Fourth Amendment? Some argue that a car is not among the “persons, houses, papers, and effects” protected by the Fourth Amendment, or that because driving is a licensed activity, it’s a privilege, not a right.
The court rejected that line of reasoning in Delaware v. Prouse in 1979, stating that an “individual operating or traveling in an automobile does not lose all reasonable expectation of privacy simply because the automobile and its use are subject to government regulation. People are not shorn of all Fourth Amendment protection when they step from their homes onto the public sidewalk; nor are they shorn of those interests when they step from the sidewalks into their automobiles.”
The court, then, grants that checkpoints are forbidden by the language of the Fourth Amendment, but allows them anyway. How? It uses a balancing test, which is usually a good indication that one has left the ground of principle for that of preference.
In American politics, the fundamental issue is the authority of the Constitution vs. the government power it’s meant to check. If we would preserve our freedoms from the whims of the powerful, then we must defend the principles that restrain that power.
On our scale of balance, the checkpoints make little sense.