SAN FRANCISCO — A sharply divided state Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the constitutionality of police roadblocks to catch suspected drunk drivers, clearing the way for use of sobriety checkpoints during the holiday season.
In a 4-3 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.
"Stopping the carnage wrought on California highways by drunk drivers is a concern the importance of which is difficult to overestimate," Justice Marcus M. Kaufman wrote for the majority.
Any intrusion on the constitutional right to privacy, he said, "is easily outweighed and justified by the magnitude of the drunk-driving menace and the potential for deterrence," he said.
The court set down guidelines for police to follow in establishing checkpoints, saying they should be accompanied by advance publicity, supervised by high-level officials, based on a neutral formula (such as stopping every fifth driver), set up at safe and reasonable locations and designed to delay motorists for only a minimal time.
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 invited "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."
Law enforcement agencies can begin setting up roadblocks throughout the state when the decision becomes final in 30 days.
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.
In its decision Thursday, the new and more conservative court followed much the same path taken in drunk-driving cases by the court under former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird. The old court, for example, in 1983 unanimously upheld a new "get-tough" state law making it illegal for motorists to drive with a blood-alcohol level of .10% or more.
Split Is a First
Thursday's ruling marked the first time that Gov. George Deukmejian's appointees to the court had been split in a major decision. Four Deukmejian appointees--Kaufman, Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas and Justices John A. Arguelles and David N. Eagleson--made up the majority.
But Panelli, the remaining appointee of the Republican governor, joined in the dissent.
State and local prosecutors had urged the court to uphold sobriety checkpoints as a potentially effective means of deterring drunk driving, pointing to statistics showing that about 25,000 alcohol-related traffic deaths occur every year in the United States.
Roadblocks have been set up in at least 19 states and approved by courts in 12 of those states thus far, attorneys in the case said.
Law enforcement officials were quick to endorse Thursday's ruling.
"The minor inconvenience of a sobriety checkpoint, operated with due consideration for individual constitutional rights, is a small price to pay for preventing even one fatal tragedy," said CHP Commissioner James E. Smith.
Amitai Schwartz of San Francisco, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said it is possible that opponents of the roadblocks will ask the court for a rehearing. No appeal will be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.
Schwartz predicted that a move to limit or overturn the ruling will be made in the Legislature, once motorists feel its impact.
"This decision gives a green light to every police jurisdiction in the state to set up sobriety roadblocks," he said. "That means you could be driving in the Los Angeles area and have to go through many different jurisdictions with roadblocks. A lot of people who think this is a great idea now may think it's not so hot after they're stopped a dozen times."
Bills to specifically authorize sobriety checkpoints have never been passed by the Legislature. But in 1984, after obtaining an opinion from state Atty. John K. Van de Kamp saying the roadblocks appeared constitutional, the CHP, the Los Angeles Police Department and other local agencies began instituting checkpoints.
One such program was begun in the Northern California community of Burlingame, where, after advance publicity, officers one night in November, 1984, diverted motorists on El Camino Real into a single lane in which every fifth car was stopped and inspected.