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#TBT: Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz (1990)

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The Michigan Department of State Police decided in 1986, to have a sobriety checkpoint program. The program included set checkpoints on the highway where police officers would check every drivers’ sobriety. If the officer were to detect a hint of intoxication, the officer would then pull the driver to a private area where the officer can ask for the driver’s lice and registration, and if permitted with a warrant, can do tests for intoxication. Once the intoxication test was done and the driver confirmed their intoxication, the officer would then be able to make an arrest.

Saginaw County was the first to have their sobriety checkpoints. In a 75 minute period, 126 cars were checked, each car delayed the traffic by 25 seconds. Only two drivers were pulled over to the side for questioning, one of them was eventually arrested for driving while intoxicated. A driver who did not stop at the checkpoint was pulled over by an officer was arrested for driving under the influence.

Previously, residents of Saginaw County had filed a complaint to the Circuit Court of Wayne County because of the nuisance for frequent travelers. The Michigan Department of State Police delayed their Saginaw County operation until the trial was over.

The trial revealed that it did violate the Fourth Amendment of the Michigan Constitution. The Michigan Dept. of State Police decided to take it to the Michigan Supreme Court for an appeal.

The Court referred back to the Brown v. Texas decision to rule out if the checkpoint program was an intrusion on drivers’ privacy.

In the referred case, Brown was stopped in an alley and questioned by two police officers in El Paso. The man refused to reveal his identity and angrily protested that the police officers have no right stopping him. One of the officers claimed that he was in a “high drug problem area,” the other officer then “frisked” Brown.

The two officers claimed that they were not suspecting Brown of any misconduct nor did they believe that he was armed.

Brown was taken to the El Paso County Jail to be searched again. He was then convicted in the El Paso Municipal Court on account of “ex. Penal Code Ann., Tit. 8, § 38.02 (a) (1974), which makes it a criminal act for a person to refuse to give his name and address to an officer ‘who has lawfully stopped him and requested the information.’”

Brown filed for an appeal because his right to privacy was violated and the officers did not have reasonable suspicion that he was committing a crime.

The Michigan Dept. of State Police argued during their court of appeals that their goal is to prevent accidents that are caused by drunk drivers. Sobriety checkpoints are a way to serve as a way of preventing the leading factor of car accidents. Throughout the nations, there have been plenty of deaths on the road due to drunk driving. At the time, drunk driving "cause an annual death toll of over 25,000[[*]] and in the same time span cause nearly one million personal injuries and more than five billion dollars in property damage." The Michigan Dept. of State Police added that their seizures “advance the public’s interest.”

The party against the checkpoints argued that these sobriety checks are ineffective when looking at the ratio of the 126 cars that stopped during duration of 75 minutes. An expert witness for the same party allegedly had done a test on the effectiveness of sobriety checks in a different state and found that only 1% of motorists had stopped.

However, the Court agreed with the Michigan Department of State Police that sobriety checkpoints are necessary in order to prevent fatal car accidents that are frequent on the road. The Court also found that these checkpoints are not “intrusive” and do not necessary violate motorists’ Fourth Amendment rights due to the fact that officers are pulling over motorists due to suspicion of drunk drivers.












Joseph M. Ghabour
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Auto, Bus, Pedestrian, Motorcycle accident, medical malpractice and worker's compensation attorney.
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