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Automobile Searches

Sobriety Checkpoints

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Court dealt with a new line of cases in which the automobile exception has been used to justify sobriety-checkpoint programs. Under such programs, police stop motorists, typically along an interstate highway, for the purpose of apprehending drivers who are impaired by alcohol. One such program was challenged and found to be constitutional in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444, 110 S. Ct. 2481, 110 L. Ed. 2d 412 (1990). The Court applied a somewhat more stringent test than that used in automobile search cases, citing as relevant authority a line of cases involving highway checkpoints for discovering illegal ALIENS (see, e.g., United States v. Martinez, 428 U.S. 543, 96 S. Ct. 3074, 49 L. Ed. 2d 1116 [1976]; Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, 99 S. Ct. 2637, 61 L. Ed. 2d 357 [1979]). Brown required "a weighing of the gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure, the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest, and the severity of the interference with individual liberty." Applying that balancing test, the majority in Sitz found that the intrusion on individual liberty imposed by Michigan's sobriety checkpoint program was outweighed by the advancement of the state's interest in preventing drunk driving. Therefore, it concluded that the program did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Similar sobriety-checkpoint programs have been used in other states. Since the Sitz decision, all have passed constitutional muster. Less certain is the constitutionality of narcotics checkpoints. In 1992, Minnesota instituted a random narcotics checkpoint on an interstate highway's exit ramp. The police stopped every third or fourth car and asked several questions of the occupants. If the answers or demeanor of the occupants aroused suspicion, the car was diverted for further investigation. A number of individuals were cited when police found marijuana, either in plain view or after a consensual search of the vehicle.

The Minnesota scheme raises serious constitutional questions. The state has a legitimate interest in curbing the use of illegal drugs. However, it is not clear that a narcotics-checkpoint program is a valid means of promoting this interest, in light of the privacy interest violated by random questioning for investigation of drug possession or use. Similarly, it is unclear whether the Minnesota scheme is the type of minimal intrusion that the Court sanctioned in Sitz. Still, the Sitz and Acevedo decisions, both of which have been criticized as giving too much discretion to the police, indicate that the Court intends to allow a great deal of latitude to law enforcement officials in stopping and searching automobiles under most conditions.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Approximation of laws to AutopsyAutomobile Searches - Warrantless Searches, Automobile Searches: Is The Fourth Amendment In Jeopardy?, Warrantless Seizures Of Automobile As Forfeitable Contraband