Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz

Decision Date14 June 1990
Docket NumberNo. 88-1897,88-1897
PartiesMICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF STATE POLICE, et al., Petitioners v. Rick SITZ, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Petitioners, the Michigan State Police Department and its Director, established a highway sobriety checkpoint program with guidelines governing checkpoint operations, site selection, and publicity. During the only operation to date, 126 vehicles passed through the checkpoint, the average delay per vehicle was 25 seconds, and two drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. The day before that operation, respondents, licensed Michigan drivers, filed suit in a county court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief from potential subjection to the checkpoints. After a trial, at which the court heard extensive testimony concerning, among other things, the "effectiveness" of such programs, the court applied the balancing test of Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, 99 S.Ct. 2637, 61 L.Ed.2d 357, and ruled that the State's program violated the Fourth Amendment. The State Court of Appeals affirmed, agreeing with the lower court's findings that the State has a "grave and legitimate" interest in curbing drunken driving; that sobriety checkpoint programs are generally ineffective and, therefore, do not significantly further that interest; and that, while the checkpoints' objective intrusion on individual liberties is slight, their "subjective intrusion" is substantial.

Held: Petitioners' highway sobriety checkpoint program is consistent with the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 448-455.

(a) United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543, 96 S.Ct. 3074, 49 L.Ed.2d 1116—which utilized a balancing test in upholding checkpoints for detecting illegal aliens—and Brown v. Texas, supra, are the relevant authorities to be used in evaluating the constitutionality of the State's program. Treasury Employees v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656, 109 S.Ct. 1384, 103 L.Ed.2d 685, was not designed to repudiate this Court's prior cases dealing with police stops of motorists on public highways and, thus, does not forbid the use of a balancing test here. Pp. 448-450.

(b) A Fourth Amendment "seizure" occurs when a vehicle is stopped at a checkpoint. See Martinez-Fuerte, supra, at 556, 96 S.Ct. at 3082. Thus, the question here is whether such seizures are "reasonable." P. 450.

(c) There is no dispute about the magnitude of, and the States' interest in eradicating, the drunken driving problem. The courts below accurately gauged the "objective" intrusion, measured by the seizure's duration and the investigation's intensity, as minimal. However, they misread this Court's cases concerning the degree of "subjective intrusion" and the potential for generating fear and surprise. The "fear and surprise" to be considered are not the natural fear of one who has been drinking over the prospect of being stopped at a checkpoint but, rather, the fear and surprise engendered in law-abiding motorists by the nature of the particular stop, such as one made by a roving patrol operating on a seldom-traveled road. Here, checkpoints are selected pursuant to guidelines, and uniformed officers stop every vehicle. The resulting intrusion is constitutionally indistinguishable from the stops upheld in Martinez-Fuerte. Pp. 451-453.

(d) The Court of Appeals also erred in finding that the program failed the "effectiveness" part of the Brown test. This balancing factor—which Brown actually describes as "the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest"—was not meant to transfer from politically accountable officials to the courts the choice as to which among reasonable alternative law enforcement techniques should be employed to deal with a serious public danger. Moreover, the court mistakenly relied on Martinez-Fuerte, supra, and Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 59 L.Ed.2d 660, to provide a basis for its "effectiveness" review. Unlike Delaware v. Prouse, this case involves neither random stops nor a complete absence of empirical data indicating that the stops would be an effective means of promoting roadway safety. And there is no justification for a different conclusion here than in Martinez-Fuerte, where the ratio of illegal aliens detected to vehicles stopped was approximately 0.5 percent, as compared with the approximately 1.6 percent detection ratio in the one checkpoint conducted by Michigan and with the 1 percent ratio demonstrated by other States' experience. Pp. 453-455.

170 Mich.App. 433, 429 N.W.2d 180 (1988), reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 455. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 456. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined as to Parts I and II, post, p. 460.

Thomas L. Casey, Lansing, Mich., for petitioners.

Stephen L. Nightingale, Washington, D.C., for the U.S., as amicus curiae supporting petitioners, by special leave of Court.

Mark Granzotto, Detroit, Mich., for respondents.

[Amicus Curiae Information from pages 446-447 intentionally omitted] Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case poses the question whether a State's use of highway sobriety checkpoints violates the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. We hold that it does not and therefore reverse the contrary holding of the Court of Appeals of Michigan.

Petitioners, the Michigan Department of State Police and its director, established a sobriety checkpoint pilot program in early 1986. The director appointed a Sobriety Checkpoint Advisory Committee comprising representatives of the State Police force, local police forces, state prosecutors, and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Pursuant to its charge, the advisory committee created guidelines setting forth procedures governing checkpoint operations, site selection, and publicity.

Under the guidelines, checkpoints would be set up at selected sites along state roads. All vehicles passing through a checkpoint would be stopped and their drivers briefly examined for signs of intoxication. In cases where a checkpoint officer detected signs of intoxication, the motorist would be directed to a location out of the traffic flow where an officer would check the motorist's driver's license and car registration and, if warranted, conduct further sobriety tests. Should the field tests and the officer's observations suggest that the driver was intoxicated, an arrest would be made. All other drivers would be permitted to resume their journey immediately.

The first—and to date the only—sobriety checkpoint operated under the program was conducted in Saginaw County with the assistance of the Saginaw County Sheriff's Department. During the 75-minute duration of the checkpoint's operation, 126 vehicles passed through the checkpoint. The average delay for each vehicle was approximately 25 seconds. Two drivers were detained for field sobriety testing, and one of the two was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. A third driver who drove through without stopping was pulled over by an officer in an observation vehicle and arrested for driving under the influence.

On the day before the operation of the Saginaw County checkpoint, respondents filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Wayne County seeking declaratory and injunctive relief from potential subjection to the checkpoints. Each of the respondents "is a licensed driver in the State of Michigan . . . who regularly travels throughout the State in his automobile." See Complaint, App. 3a-4a. During pretrial proceedings, petitioners agreed to delay further implementation of the checkpoint program pending the outcome of this litigation.

After the trial, at which the court heard extensive testimony concerning, inter alia, the "effectiveness" of highway sobriety checkpoint programs, the court ruled that the Michigan program violated the Fourth Amendment and Art. 1, § 11, of the Michigan Constitution. App. to Pet. for Cert. 132a. On appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the holding that the program violated the Fourth Amendment and, for that reason, did not consider whether the program violated the Michigan Constitution. 170 Mich.App. 433, 445, 429 N.W.2d 180, 185 (1988). After the Michigan Supreme Court denied petitioners' application for leave to appeal, we granted certiorari. 493 U.S. 806, 110 S.Ct. 46, 107 L.Ed.2d 15 (1989).

To decide this case the trial court performed a balancing test derived from our opinion in Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, 99 S.Ct. 2637, 61 L.Ed.2d 357 (1979). As described by the Court of Appeals, the test- in volved "balancing the state's interest in preventing accidents caused by drunk drivers, the effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints in achieving that goal, and the level of intrusion on an individual's privacy caused by the checkpoints." 170 Mich.App., at 439, 429 N.W.2d, at 182 (citing Brown, supra, 443 U.S., at 50-51, 99 S.Ct., at 2640). The Court of Appeals agreed that "the Brown three-prong balancing test was the correct test to be used to determine the constitutionality of the sobriety checkpoint plan." 170 Mich.App., at 439, 429 N.W.2d, at 182.

As characterized by the Court of Appeals, the trial court's findings with respect to the balancing factors were that the State has "a grave and legitimate" interest in curbing drunken driving; that sobriety checkpoint programs are generally "ineffective" and, therefore, do not significantly further that interest; and that the checkpoints' "subjective intrusion" on individual liberties is substantial. Id., at 439, 440, 429 N.W.2d, at 183, 184. According to the court, the record disclosed no basis for disturbing the trial court's findings, which were made within...

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