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Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz


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496 U.S. 444 (1990), argued 27 Feb. 1990, decided 14 June 1990 by vote of 6 to 3; Rehnquist for the Court, Blackmun concurring, Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens in dissent. Michigan had established a highway sobriety checkpoint program with specific guidelines regarding operation of the checkpoints, site selection, and publicity. In its first operation, state police arrested two persons out of 126 vehicles for driving under the influence of alcohol. Before the program could continue, a group of licensed Michigan drivers sued on the grounds that the checkpoint operation violated the Fourth Amendment, in that it constituted a warrantless and unreasonable search and seizure. The drivers won their case in the lower courts, with the state tribunals ruling that although the state had a legitimate interest in curbing drunken driving, the checkpoint program constituted a substantial intrusion on individual liberties.

The Supreme Court reversed and ruled that the state courts had erred in interpreting the balancing test for administrative searches established in United States v. Martinez-Fuerte (1976; administrative search at borders for illegal aliens) and Brown v. Texas (1979; requirements for identification after a lawful stop). Chief Justice William Rehnquist agreed with the lower courts and the state that Michigan had a substantial and legitimate interest in curbing drunken driving.

The lower courts had erred, however, in applying the criteria of fear engendered in administrative searches. For Fourth Amendment purposes, the “fear and surprise” to be considered are not those of drunken drivers apprehensive of arrest but that engendered in law-abiding drivers confronting an administrative search. The majority therefore found the sobriety checkpoint program consistent with Fourth Amendment safeguards.

Melvin I. Urofsky

Subjects: Law.


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