IF the best way to catch drunk drivers is to swerve around the Constitution, Americans had better take another look at the road map. United States Supreme Court justices, in an effort to cut down on inebriated motorists, may be tempted this term to uphold a Michigan law that allows sobriety checkpoints along state highways. A Michigan judge and a state appeals court ruled that the checkpoints are unconstitutional, citing unreasonable intrusion on individual liberties.
Other states, including California, have upheld this program.
Which should take precedence? Checking those who drive under the influence or limiting the rights and privacy of those who don't drive drunk? It's a tough call.
Nobody wants potential killers on the road. Drunk-driving statistics are significant enough to warrant government action. Suspending the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable police searches and seizures, however, may be going too far.
A decade ago, the High Court suggested that roadblocks may be constitutionally acceptable if police give adequate notice, minimize interference with the public, and don't act arbitrarily in deciding which cars to stop.
Is this enough to protect individual rights under the federal Bill of Rights?
Some states say their state constitutions demand more stringent protections. Rhode Island's Supreme Court, for example, says that roadblocks are an invasion of privacy under that state's Declaration of Rights.
Chief Justice Thomas Fay wrote last summer: ``It is well beyond dispute that drunk drivers are a grave menace to the public and that stronger measures are needed to cope with this problem.
``However,'' Justice Fay added, ``it would shock and offend the framers of the Rhode Island Constitution if we were to hold that the guarantees against unreasonable and warrantless searches and seizures should be subordinated to the interest of efficient law enforcement.''
The Rhode Island jurist gets to the heart of the on-going problem of balancing the need to protect individual rights with the responsibility to uphold the public's health and welfare in a democratic society.
A yardstick often used is to determine whether there is a less-intrusive way to attain a desired end than the one at hand.
Police restraint and impartiality would be ideal - but society is not always ideal nor is law enforcement. That's why we have courts.
Warrantless searches - such as those imposed by a sobriety roadblock - leave much to be desired.
They may pull some tipplers in - but they may also invade the privacy of nondrinking drivers. What is to stop a policeman from pulling over disheveled motorists or exuberant youths who may seem to be probable alcohol users but are not?
The risks to invasion of privacy are too great to take this type of shortcut around the Constitution.