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The reasonableness of drunk driving stops

Drunk driving is different. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from "unreasonable searches and seizures." In most cases, before the police can search a person, they have to obtain a warrant from an impartial judge. This is one of the most important checks on unrestrained government power. Without it, the police could randomly burst into a home or stop anyone driving down a street or highway and search them for evidence of criminal activity.

But drunk driving is different. The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed police to stop vehicles at sobriety checkpoints, examining every driver for signs of intoxication. This is allowed in spite of evidence that these checkpoints are often not very effective.

In reality, police can stop virtually any driver any time they want. All they are required to do is follow a vehicle until the driver commits a minor traffic offense or they notice something like a non-working tail light or turn signal. This provides the "reasonable suspicion" to initiate a stop.

With this as their opening, law enforcement gains an opportunity to approach drivers and examine them for the odor of alcohol, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech. They can also request a driver perform field sobriety tests and eventually, the officer or trooper may demand a breath or blood test.

If you have been charged with an OWI in Michigan, this process likely contains the weakest link of the prosecution's case. The officer may have had adequate justification for the stop. They may have assumed your bloodshot eyes were due to alcohol and not a severe case of allergies. They may have improperly instructed you on the field sobriety tests or may have made other mistakes during the arrest.

Ironically, the U.S. Supreme Court case that permitted sobriety checkpoints, Michigan State Police v. Sitz, was effectively reversed in Michigan by the state supreme court when it found that such checkpoints were a violation of art 1, ยง 11 of the Michigan Constitution, instead of the U.S. Constitution.

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