Fourth Amendment and Texas’s Sobriety Checkpoint Program

The following article was provided by Lauren Williams, Legal Writer at The Law Offices of Michael Brennan, Chicago Il.

More than 10,000 people were killed in 2010 throughout the United States in DWI accidents and 1200 people lost their lives in Texas alone.  In order to decrease the DWI accidents in the State, Texas is considering legislation that would allow ‘Sobriety Checkpoints’ at various places across the State.

Sobriety Checkpoints allow the police to stop all or a pre-estimated percentage of automobiles passing a particular location.  The average motorist is stopped for a very brief period of time, approximately 30 seconds.  If there is evidence of intoxication, the motorist will be given traditional sobriety testing.  The purpose of sobriety checkpoints is to prevent drunk driving by increasing the perceived risk that those who drive under the influence of alcohol will be apprehended.  The checkpoint will serve as a visible warning not only to the drivers who are drunk, but also to those who are sober but might contemplate driving in an impaired state on some other occasion.

Currently, Texas law prohibits sobriety checkpoints as a result of it’s interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. However, two cases in particular highlight the legality of sobriety checkpoints.

In a 1990 case, King v. State, 800 S.W.2d 528, The Texas supreme court held that “a stop at a sobriety checkpoint constitutes a seizure within the context of U.S. Const. amend. IV.”   

It was further observed in this case that ;

“These seizures are reasonable, and do not violate amend. IV’s proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures. The balance of the state’s interest in preventing drunken driving, the extent to which this system can reasonably be said to advance that interest, and the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists who are briefly stopped, weighs in favor of the state sobriety checkpoint program, and it is consistent with amend. IV.”

In a 1997 case, Schenekl v. State, 996 S.W.2d 305, the Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth, held that “ the seizure, while suspicionless, was analogous to a sobriety checkpoint and furthered the promotion of a legitimate government interest in protecting its boaters.”

It was further held in this case that;

“U.S. Const. amend. IV does not prohibit all searches and seizures, only those that are deemed unreasonable. Generally, this means a government official may not conduct a search and seizure unless there is some individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. However, under certain limited circumstances, searches and seizures conducted without individualized suspicion may be reasonable under U.S. Const. amend. IV.”

A bill for constituting Sobriety Checkpoints has been filed in the Session of Texas Senate that started on January 8, 2013.  Many proponents of the bill believe sobriety checkpoints will reduce the number of drunk driving accidents, injuries and deaths resulting from drunk driving. If passed, Texas will be one of 39 states plus the Distrct of Colubmia that permit the use of sobriety checkpoints.

The above article was a guest post and may not reflect the opinions of Rand Mintzer, Attorney at Law.