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Sobriety checkpoints and the Fourth Amendment

By Scott Tibbs, March 14, 2013

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated" -- The Fourth Amendment.

March 8 marked the beginning of a 17-day campaign by the state police to fight drunk driving. Increased patrols and putting more officers on the road are good responses and will hopefully save some lives by taking drunk drivers off the road or acting as a deterrent to people who might otherwise drive drunk. The problem is that these will not be the only tactics used - law enforcement will also be conducting sobriety checkpoints.

When a similar checkpoint was conducted back in 2010, I asked the state police what motorists could expect. The response sent to me via e-mail explained it as follows: "Vehicles that come through the checkpoint will be stopped. The driver will be asked to produce their driverís license and registration for the vehicle." Motorists can expect to be delayed for a couple minutes if they have not committed a violation.

This was a couple months after the state of Arizona started a national debate by requiring law enforcement check immigration status of people who might be in the country illegally. Yet many of the same people who strenuously objected to having people "show their papers" had no problem with all drivers being stopped by law enforcement and being required to "show their papers" simply because they happen to be driving on a certain stretch of road at a specific time.

How can this not be a violation of our rights under the Fourth Amendment? Every single driver is stopped and asked to provide "papers" to law enforcement, even though they have committed no wrong and there is no reasonable suspicion they have done anything wrong. How is that not an "unreasonable search" prohibited by the Constitution of these United States? At what point does a search of random citizens become "unreasonable" to defenders of checkpoints?

Some defend the checkpoints because the courts have not struck them down. Setting aside the fact that it is dangerous to ignore the clear text of the Bill of Rights simply because of what some judges say, just because checkpoints are "legal" does not mean they are necessary or proper. It would be a simple matter for the General Assembly to pass a law prohibiting sobriety checkpoints, or for it to be decided administratively that these tactics will not be used.

Others say that it is "selfish" to defend our rights because the checkpoints may save some lives. But at what point does it not become selfish? What limits - if any - exist on the authority of government to take actions that might prevent crime? Should random searches of houses be OK? Should law enforcement be allowed to stop people walking down the street in case they are carrying contraband? Should people leaving a supermarket be patted down in case they are shoplifting?

At worst, sobriety checkpoints are an illegal violation of our rights as American citizens. At best, they are a government overreach that should be prohibited by law. Either way, this tactic should be ended. Our representatives in Indianapolis can show their commitment to limited government and individual liberty by banning sobriety checkpoints and placing civil liberties over the need to "do something."