Sobriety checkpoints typically involve law enforcement setting up a roadblock on a public road and either stopping every single vehicle or each vehicle in a pattern (e.g. every third or fourth vehicle) to investigate if the operator is too impaired to drive due to alcohol or controlled substance use. Police officers would generally set up a checkpoint at a date and time when drivers under the influence are most likely to be on the road (e.g. early mornings on weekends, certain holidays). These checkpoints are essentially a warrantless stop and detention of the drivers involved without any probable cause or reasonable suspicion by law enforcement whatsoever. Are sobriety checkpoints legal in Michigan? Do they violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures?
The U.S. Supreme Court addressed the very issue of DUI checkpoints in Michigan Department of State Police v Sitz, 496 U.S. 444, 110 SCt 2481; 110 L Ed 2d 412 (1990). In 1986, the Michigan State Police Department set up a sobriety checkpoint pilot program with certain procedures and guidelines. Some of those guidelines including setting up checkpoints at selected sites on state roads, stopping every vehicle passing through to check for signs of intoxication, and directing suspect drivers out of the main traffic flow to a location where further sobriety testing can be conducted. The first, and only, sobriety checkpoint set up under this program was in Saginaw County where the local sheriff and state police stopped 126 vehicles in a hour and fifteen minute duration. This checkpoint lead to three arrests for operating a vehicle under the influence.
A coalition of Michigan drivers filed a complaint in Wayne County Circuit Court seeking an injunction and a declaratory judgment against the checkpoints. After a trial, the circuit court ruled that the sobriety checkpoint program violated the Fourth Amendment. The Michigan Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion and the Michigan Supreme Court declined to hear the matter. As a result, the Michigan State Police appealed the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It wasn’t the first time that the highest court in the land had addressed the issue of checkpoints. In United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976), the U.S. Supreme Court held that, with respect to checkpoints to stop and look for vehicles containing illegal aliens, “[w]hile the need to make routine checkpoint stops is great, the consequent intrusion on Fourth Amendment interests is quite limited.” Id at 557. “At traffic checkpoints, the motorist can see that other vehicles are being stopped, he can see visible signs of the officers’ authority, and he is much less likely to be frightened or annoyed by the intrusion.” Id at 558. The U.S. Supreme Court found these routine checkpoints to be reasonable under the circumstances. There is no question that the Michigan State Police’s checkpoint scheme is also a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment, but the question is whether it is reasonable.
The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged that drunk driving is a substantial issue being dealt with by the states. It found that “the balance of the State’s interest in preventing drunken driving, the extent to which this system can reasonably be said to advance that interest, and the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists who are briefly stopped, weighs in favor of the state program.” Id at 455. Therefore, the routine checkpoint program was consistent with the Fourth Amendment and the judgment of the Michigan Court of Appeals was reversed.
Although the use of routine checkpoints by law enforcement was given the blessing of the U.S. Constitution, it was up to the individual states to decide if it was in violation of their own individual constitutions. When the Sitz matter was remanded back to the Michigan Court of Appeals, that was exactly what happened here. Article I, Section 11 of the Michigan Constitution of 1963 states:
- “The person, houses, papers and possessions of every person shall be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. No warrant to search any place or to seize any person or things shall issue without describing them, nor without probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation.”
Generally, the Michigan Constitution is construed to afford the same rights as those given by the federal constitution, especially when the text closely mirrors the Fourth Amendment. However, when there is compelling reason to do so, the Michigan Constitution may be construed in a manner that results in greater rights than those afforded by the federal constitution. People v Nash, 418 Mich 196; 341 NW2d 439 (1983). The most compelling reason to the Michigan Court of Appeals is that they did not believe the framers of the state constitution (or the people adopting it) intended Article 1, Section 11 to permit suspicionless seizures of persons under the circumstances of the Michigan State Police’s checkpoint scheme. Sitz v Michigan Department of State Police (On Remand), 193 Mich App 690, 696; 485 NW2d 135 (1992). Therefore, DUI checkpoints were determined to be unconstitutional within the State of Michigan.
Finally, on its last appeal, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the lower appellate court’s finding that the sobriety checkpoints were prohibited under the Michigan Constitution. The high court found no evidence from history that Article 1, Section 11 (which was nearly identical from the text from Constitution of 1908) stands “for the proposition that the police may engage in warrantless, suspicionless seizures of automobiles.” Sitz v Michigan Department of State Police (On Remand), 443 Mich 744, 764; 506 NW2d 209 (1993). “We hold only that the protection afforded to the seizures of vehicles for criminal investigatory purposes has both an historical foundation and a contemporary justification that is not outweighed by the necessity advanced.” Id at 778. “Suspicionless criminal investigatory seizures, and extreme deference to the judgments of politically accountable officials is, in this context, contrary to Michigan constitutional precedent.” Id at 778-779.
Michigan is one of eleven states to determine that sobriety checkpoints are illegal under its own constitution. However, this does not shield Michigan drivers from a traffic stop from law enforcement if there is reasonable suspicion of operating the vehicle while intoxicated. If you or a loved one is charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated or impaired, you need the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney in your corner. When you are in need of skilled legal representation, do not hesitate to contact the lawyers at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC today.