Thursday, February 20, 2014

Let's talk about sobriety checkpoints

At the request of @RunoftheShipe, today's post will be about sobriety checkpoints.  The request for my piercing insight nonsensical ramblings was due to a recent post by Bob Collins in the 5x8 Newscut blog.  The latest MADD report gives Minnesota an abysmal 2 out of 5 stars on our DWI laws and suggests 2 ways we can--and according to MADD, we should--fix this low rating. 

Thing one: require an ignition interlock device for ALL convicted DWI offenders w/ a BAC of .08 or more. 

Thing two: allow for sobriety checkpoints. 

I could go on and on about thing one and the ridiculousness of mandating ALL defendants convicted of a DWI be required to have an ignition interlock device, but in the interest of addressing the question that was posed to me, I'll stick to just thing two today.  Ignition interlock is a conversation rant for another day. 

So, checkpoints.  What's up with those? 

As always, let's review the background info needed to understand this topic.  First thing to know is that anytime the police stop your vehicle, that's a seizure.  You have been seized by police, although it's not a full-blown arrest-type seizure.  But you're clearly not free to just drive off and go on with your business until the officer tells you you're free to go, so you have been seized. 

In general, in Minnesota, the police need reasonable, articulable suspicion to seize a vehicle. (Sidenote: "articulable" is one of those made up, lawyer words that gets the red, squiggly line under it because the computer doesn't recognize it as a real word). 

Now, the issue of sobriety checkpoints was addressed by the United States Supreme Court in a case called Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz. SCOTUS weighed the interest that the government had in protecting the public from drunk drivers against the intrusion of the seizure involved in a sobriety checkpoint and determined that the intrusion on the driver was minimal and that the government's interest outweighed the minor intrusion on drivers. Basically, because the checkpoint stop was brief for most drivers, the intrusion was "reasonable" when compared with the state's interest in preventing people from driving while intoxicated.

But, Minnesota disagreed with that holding, in a case called Ascher v. Commissioner of Public Safety. States are allowed to interpret their own state constitutions to have greater protections than the federal Constitution, and in Ascher, Minnesota did just that.  The court in Ascher decided that there wasn't sufficient evidence to show that sobriety checkpoints are a more effective way of catching drunk drivers than other, less-intrusive methods used by law enforcement.  The court also had a problem with the idea of permitting anyone, innocent or not, to be stopped without any type of reasonable suspicion of a crime and determined that it was a violation of a person's rights under the Minnesota Constitution. 

So, in Minnesota, there can't ever be any sobriety checkpoints unless the state passes a constitutional amendment to allow for them.  

But, what led SCOTUS to a different decision? 

Basically, the main thrust in their decision was that the Constitution protects against "unreasonable searches and seizure."  The key is "reasonableness."  The Court looked at the societal costs of drunk drivers--accidents, deaths, injuries, etc.--and weighed that against the type of search/seizure involved in a checkpoint.  Since most motorists are not drunk, the stop is fairly brief--the police just talk to you for a minute or so to see if you're displaying any obvious signs of intoxication and if not, they send you on your way.  So, SCOTUS determined that the state had proven the "reasonableness" of the stop when compared to the state's interest in keeping drunk drivers off the road. 

Does is skirt the 4th Amendment?  It depends on who you ask.  The Constitution does protect against "unreasonable" searches and seizures.  The question then is what counts as "unreasonable."  Clearly Minnesota's Supreme Court felt that sobriety checkpoints, despite being only a minute or two, were an unreasonable search/seizure.  

I have to say I agree with the Minnesota Court's interpretation of "unreasonable."  As someone who spends 40+ hours a week dealing with the minutia of search and seizure law, where things in my job frequently depend on seemingly insignificant facts, I think that any suspicionless search is unreasonable.  Allowing suspicionless searches, even when it advances a good cause like preventing deaths due to drunk drivers, sets a precedent that I'm not comfortable with.  Like I've argued before, where does it end?  If suspicionless searches are allowed when there's a particularly egregious crime that the state is trying to prevent, then what is to stop this line of reasoning from being applied to other types of suspicionless searches beyond just checkpoints? 

In my opinion, Minnesota got it right in its determination that completely suspicionless searches violate the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, under the Minnesota Constitution.  I say that any seizure, despite its length or brevity, that is completely void of any reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity is an unreasonable search and violates citizens' rights. 

But that's just me. Clearly, MADD doesn't agree with me or the Minnesota Supreme Court.  But, thankfully, MADD doesn't get to interpret the laws and the rights afforded to us all in the Constitution. 

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