Officials in Texas Debate the Merits of Sobriety Checkpoints

This weekend, millions of Americans will get together to light up the grill, crack open a few beers and celebrate the first long weekend of cookout season. While the vast majority of these people will drink responsibly, others will inevitably make the unfortunate decision to get behind the wheel after having one too many. Throughout the country, Hospitals and law enforcement agencies tend to see a spike in drunk driving fatalities during the long weekends of Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

To combat this disturbing trend, many towns and cities set up sobriety checkpoints in hopes of identifying impaired drivers before they hurt themselves or others. In Texas, however, sobriety checkpoints were banned in 1994 following a ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in the Holt v. State case.

At the time, the court ruled that sobriety checkpoints are a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Because sobriety checkpoints stop all drivers passing through a roadway regardless of their behavior, the court decided that they amount to cases of unreasonable search and seizure. By ruling against sobriety checkpoints, members of the court hoped to set a precedent that would prevent other similar government intrusions in the future. But in spite of their good intentions, the decision may have had some unfortunate practical consequences.

Throughout the early 2000’s, Texas perennially had the highest number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the country. As a result, many local law enforcement agencies urged lawmakers to reconsider the restriction on sobriety checkpoints. While some legislators were open to the suggestion, others argued that these checkpoints constituted a gross invasion of privacy that would effectively allow the government to dictate where you can travel. Proponents of sobriety checkpoints countered with the argument that when it comes to drunk driving, the public’s interest is greater than the individual’s right to privacy.

In 2009, a bill to relax the ban on sobriety checkpoints passed the state Senate, but stalled in the House.

The bill would have permitted sobriety stops in cities with populations greater than 500,000, or for sheriff’s departments in counties with more than 250,000 people. Another similar bill was considered the following year, but once again it failed to make it through the House.

In recent years, some law enforcement agencies have attempted to circumvent the ban with driver’s license and registration checkpoints that also look for signs of intoxication. Thus far, courts in Texas have been willing to overlook this loophole in the ban.

Currently, Texas is one of just 12 states where sobriety checkpoints aren’t conducted. Do you think this should change, or do sobriety checkpoints violate our Fourth Amendment rights? Let us know what you think in the comments!