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U.S. Supreme Court

In this Court, respondents seek to defend the judgment in their favor by insisting that the balancing test derived from Brown v. Texas, supra, was not the proper method of analysis. Respondents maintain that the analysis must proceed from a basis of probable cause or reasonable suspicion and rely for support on language from our decision last Term in Treasury Employees v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656 (1989). We said in Von Raab:

Where a Fourth Amendment intrusion serves special governmental needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, it is necessary to balance the individual's privacy expectations against the Government's interests to determine whether it is impractical to require a warrant [p*450] or some level of individualized suspicion in the particular context.

Id. at 665-666. Respondents argue that there must be a showing of some special governmental need "beyond the normal need" for criminal law enforcement before a balancing analysis is appropriate, and that petitioners have demonstrated no such special need.

But it is perfectly plain from a reading of Von Raab, which cited and discussed with approval our earlier decision in United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976), that it was in no way designed to repudiate our prior cases dealing with police stops of motorists on public highways. Martinez-Fuerte, supra, which utilized a balancing analysis in approving highway checkpoints for detecting illegal aliens, and Brown v. Texas, supra, are the relevant authorities here.

Petitioners concede, correctly in our view, that a Fourth Amendment "seizure" occurs when a vehicle is stopped at a checkpoint. Tr. of Oral Arg. 11; see Martinez-Fuerte, supra, at 556 ("It is agreed that checkpoint stops are `seizures' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment"); Brower v. County of Inyo, 489 U.S. 593, 597 (1989) (Fourth Amendment seizure occurs "when there is a governmental termination of freedom of movement through means intentionally applied" (emphasis in original)). The question thus becomes whether such seizures are "reasonable" under the Fourth Amendment.

It is important to recognize what our inquiry is not about. No allegations are before us of unreasonable treatment of any person after an actual detention at a particular checkpoint. See Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. at 559 ("claim that a particular exercise of discretion in locating or operating a checkpoint is unreasonable is subject to post-stop judicial review"). As pursued in the lower courts, the instant action challenges only the use of sobriety checkpoints generally. We address only the initial stop of each motorist passing through a checkpoint and the associated preliminary questioning and observation [p*451] by checkpoint officers. Detention of particular motorists for more extensive field sobriety testing may require satisfaction of an individualized suspicion standard. Id. at 567.

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." 4 W. LaFave, Search and Seizure: A Treatise on the Fourth Amendment § 10.8(d), p. 71 (2d ed. 1987). For decades, this Court has "repeatedly lamented the tragedy." South Dakota v. Neville, 459 U.S. 553, 558 (1983); see Breithaupt v. Abram, 352 U.S. 432, 439 (1957) ("The increasing slaughter on our highways . . . now reaches the astounding figures only heard of on the battlefield").

Conversely, the weight bearing on the other scale — the measure of the intrusion on motorists stopped briefly at sobriety checkpoints — is slight. We reached a similar conclusion as to the intrusion on motorists subjected to a brief stop at a highway checkpoint for detecting illegal aliens. See Martinez-Fuerte, supra, at 558. We see virtually no difference between the levels of intrusion on law-abiding motorists [p*452] from the brief stops necessary to the effectuation of these two types of checkpoints, which to the average motorist would seem identical save for the nature of the questions the checkpoint officers might ask. The trial court and the Court of Appeals, thus, accurately gauged the "objective" intrusion, measured by the duration of the seizure and the intensity of the investigation, as minimal. See 170 Mich.App. at 444, 429 N.W.2d at 184.