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New bill proposes legalizing sobriety checkpoints in Wisconsin

Every American is guaranteed certain fundamental rights by the Constitution. Among them is the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

In the context of a traffic stop, under normal circumstances, this means that a law enforcement officer needs reasonable suspicion to pull over a car. Would a reasonable person, based on specific and articulable facts, suspect that an offense has been committed? If so, reasonable suspicion exists, and a police officer may stop a car to investigate further. When a police officer pulls over a car without reasonable suspicion, the suspect’s rights have been violated, and he or she may be able to get evidence tainted by the illegal search thrown out in court.

However, the Supreme Court has ruled that in limited circumstances, police may stop cars at a sobriety checkpoint even without reasonable suspicion. In the 1990 case Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, the Supreme Court ruled by a vote of 6-3 that as long as police follow certain rules, like filing an operational plan before conducting a sobriety checkpoint that describes how drivers will be randomly selected, sobriety checkpoints can be constitutional, at least at the federal level.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, sobriety checkpoints are by no means without controversy, and certain states do not conduct them or specifically prohibit them by state law, state constitution or their own courts’ interpretation of state or constitutional law. Currently, 12 states do not conduct sobriety checkpoints.

Wisconsin is one of the states in which sobriety checkpoints are not conducted. Yet, one Wisconsin lawmaker – State Senator Tim Carpenter – wants to change that.

Senator Carpenter is in the process of drafting a bill that would permit Wisconsin law enforcement authorities to conduct sobriety checkpoints. If passed, this bill would reverse the Wisconsin statute that prohibits sobriety checkpoints. Wisconsin’s neighbors to the west and north, Minnesota and Michigan, are also among the states that do not permit sobriety checkpoints.

This is not the first time sobriety checkpoints have been proposed in Wisconsin. Former Governor Jim Doyle came out in favor of legalizing sobriety checkpoints in Wisconsin nearly five years ago. Yet, there remains strong opposition to checkpoints throughout much of Wisconsin.

Among the arguments against sobriety checkpoints is that they generally take a great deal of public resources but typically do not net many arrests. In a recent sobriety checkpoint conducted the night before Thanksgiving in Waukegan, Illinois, 605 drivers were forced to pull over and let police check them for signs of drunk driving; just three were cited for drunk driving. Meanwhile, 17 officers staffed the checkpoint, at an estimated payroll cost of $6,500.

Of course, of greater concern than the high cost to effectiveness ratio of sobriety checkpoints are the implications for personal liberty. In the Waukegan checkpoint, 602 innocent drivers were stopped and questioned without suspicion in order to catch just three drivers who were allegedly violating the law. In other words, more than 99.5 percent of the drivers stopped were doing nothing wrong.

It remains to be seen whether Senator Carpenter’s bill will gain momentum in the Wisconsin legislation. Whether it passes or not, however, your rights are at stake in any encounter with law enforcement. If you’ve been arrested for drunk driving, it is important to protect your rights by contacting a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

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