SAN FRANCISCO — A sharply divided state Supreme Court today upheld the constitutionality of police roadblocks to catch suspected drunk drivers.
In a 4 to 3 decision, the justices rejected contentions by civil libertarians that motorists should be stopped only when there is an "individualized suspicion" that they are intoxicated.
The court concluded that sobriety checkpoints, like airport metal detectors, are aimed primarily at promoting public safety--not at obtaining evidence of a crime.
Any intrusion on the constitutional right to privacy "is easily outweighed and justified by the magnitude of the drunk driving menace and the potential for deterrence," Justice Marcus M. Kaufman wrote for the majority.
The court's dissenters accused the majority of "stretching" the Constitution. While agreeing that drunk driving is a serious problem, they warned that the ruling opened the way for "pervasive" violations of privacy.
"Roadblocks will be everywhere . . . ," Justice Allen E. Broussard wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Stanley Mosk and Edward A. Panelli. "This could mean 20 or 30 or more roadblocks in any urban area on any given night."
The ruling is to become final within 30 days, opening the way for law enforcement agencies to employ sobriety checkpoints during the Thanksgiving holidays.
The California Highway Patrol and other police agencies had instituted drunk driving roadblocks three years ago but the practice was temporarily blocked by the justices in 1986 pending a ruling on its constitutionality.