Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz 496 U.S. 444 (1990)

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recent fourth amendment cases reflect a pattern of rejection by the Supreme Court of claims based on the right against unreasonable search and seizure. This case fits that pattern, yet the decision of the Court seems right.

Because of the slaughter on public highways caused by drunk drivers, the Michigan State Police instituted a program of sobriety checkpoints. All drivers passing through a checkpoint, usually after midnight, were stopped and examined briefly for signs of intoxication. Suspected drunk drivers were directed out of the flow of traffic for further investigation; all others were permitted to continue. The average stop took twenty-five seconds.

A 6–3 Supreme Court held that although the stop was a seizure in the sense of the Fourth Amendment, it was a reasonable one because the intrusion was slight and served a substantial public interest. The dissenters, led by Justice john paul stevens, believed that the intrusion violated the Fourth Amendment. Much of Steven's opinion challenged the wisdom of the legislative policy authorizing the sobriety-checkpoint program. His challenge to its constitutionality was founded on the absurd proposition that "unannounced investigatory seizures are, particularly when they take place at night, the hallmarks of regimes far different from ours," and he referred to Nazi Germany. Moreover, Stevens weakened his argument based on the Fourth Amendment by offering the opinion that a permanent, nondiscretionary checkpoint program would not violate the amendment. He supposed that a state could condition the use of its roads on the uniform administration of a breathalizer test to all drivers, thereby keeping drunks off the roads.

The intrusiveness of the means upheld by the Court's majority, led by Chief Justice william h. rehnquist, was considerably less than that of the means favored by Stevens. In addition, the majority did not debate the wisdom of the policy before it. Its deference to the legislature seemed submissive, however, and its constitutional analysis stopped when it took notice of the twenty-five-second intrusion.

Leonard W. Levy

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Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz 496 U.S. 444 (1990)

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Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz 496 U.S. 444 (1990)