Sitz was argued February 27, 1990 and decided June 14, 1990 by a vote of six to three. Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion for the Court, with Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens dissenting. The Court held that while highway sobriety checkpoints allow for a ‘‘seizure,’’ the seizure is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The decision signifies that the Court recognizes the state’s ‘‘grave and legitimate interest in curbing drunk driving’’ (p. 444).
Michigan State Police established a highway sobriety checkpoint with guidelines governing checkpoint operations, site selection, and publicity. During the time frame at issue, 126 vehicles passed through the checkpoint with an average delay of twenty-five seconds, and two drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Using the rationale from U.S. v. Martinez–Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976), Chief Justice Rehnquist argued that the degree of intrusion is minimal in comparison to the state’s interest. ‘‘No one can seriously dispute the magnitude of the drunken driving problem or the States’ interest in eradicating it. Media reports of alcohol-related death and mutilation on the Nation’s roads are legion. The anecdotal is confirmed by the statistical. ‘Drunk drivers 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 empirical data coupled with the brief intrusion, Chief Justice Rehnquist reversed the Michigan Court of Appeals and affirmed the constitutionality of sobriety checkpoints.
Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens dissented. The dissent focused on the suspicionless seizure of motorists. Differentiating with Martinez–Fuerte, Justice Brennan noted that, in Sitz, the element of surprise played a large role. The majority decision gave unlimited discretion to detain the driver on the slightest suspicion. The dissent went on to argue that the majority misapplies the balancing test by assuming there is no difference between a routine stop at a permanent checkpoint and a surprise stop at a sobriety checkpoint. ‘‘This is a case that is driven by nothing more than symbolic state action—an insufficient justification for an otherwise unreasonable program of random seizures. Unfortunately, the Court is transfixed by the wrong symbol—the illusory prospect of punishing countless intoxicated motorists—when it should keep its eyes on the road plainly marked by the Constitution.’’
AARON R. S. LORENZ