Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz
496 U.S. 444, 110 S. Ct. 2481, 110 L. Ed.2d 412 (1990)

  • The police in Michigan set up a sobriety checkpoint. They pulled over random vehicles without suspicion and checked to see if the drivers were drunk.
  • A group of Michigan residents (led by Sitz) sued for an injunction to stop the practice.
    • Sitz argued that the suspicionless searches were an unreasonable invasion of privacy under the Michigan Constitution and the 4th Amendment.
  • The Trial Court found for the police and did not issue the injunction. Sitz appealed.
    • The Trial Court performed a balancing test and found that the State’s interest in keeping drunks off the roads, and the effectiveness of the program outweighed the minor inconvenience to the drivers.
      • See Brown v. Texas (443 U.S. 47 (1979)).
  • The Appellate Court reversed. The police appealed.
    • The Appellate Court performed the same balancing test, but found the program to be a violation of the 4th Amendment.
      • The Appellate Court found that while the State has an interest in keeping drunks of the roads, and the inconvenience was minor, the program was not very effective. So, on balance, it was impermissible.
        • On one night, the police stopped 126 cars, and found only one drunk driver.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and found the checkpoints to be legal.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the checkpoints were as effective as could be expected, and therefore they were constitutional under the balancing test.
      • “No one can seriously dispute the magnitude of the drunken driving problem or the States’ interest in eradicating it.” The Court then found that “the weight bearing on the other scale…the measure of the intrusion on motorists stopped briefly at sobriety checkpoints…is slight.”
      • The Court compared this case to their decision in United States v. Martinez-Fuerte (428 U.S. 453 (1976)), where a program to catch illegal immigrants was found to be effective. That program was less effective than the Michigan program was.
  • In a dissent it was argued that Michigan (or any other State) could not show any decrease in drunk driving accidents due to the start of sobriety checkpoints. Therefore they were clearly ineffective and actually damaging because they took up police time better spent doing other things. Therefore, they do not meet the balancing test.
    • It was also argued that the Court undervalued the personal privacy interest and overvalued the State’s interest.
  • In general, a suspicionless search consisting of stopping people at random, without individualized suspicion or probable cause can be considered constitutional as long as, on balance, the government interest and the effectiveness of the program outweigh the degree of intrusion into privacy.
    • Note that this only applies to administrative searches, which are done primarily for reasons other than criminal law enforcement.
      • In this case, the stops were done to keep the roads safe, not to uncover criminal behavior.
      • See City of Indianapolis v. Edmond (531 U.S. 32 (2000)).
  • One of the important factors in an administrative search is that it must be standardized and apply to everyone equally. Compare this case to Delaware v. Prouse (440 U.S. 648 (1979)). In that case, the police were stopping people at a checkpoint, but at the whim of the policeman. In this case, the police were using an algorithm to pull people over.
    • In order to be constitutional, the search selection process must be non-discretionary.