"A man's house is his castle," the English jurist Sir Edward Coke declared in 1644.
America's founders put it into more ornate language almost two centuries later: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
Although neither Sir Edward Coke nor the authors of the Bill of Rights had ever heard of automobiles, we're confident that if they had they would have said the inside of somebody's car should be just as secure as his house from unreasonable, warrantless searches.
That ancient principle of the English common law and the American Constitution was thrown out the window by many states, including Oregon, when they decided to allow police to set up random checkpoints to catch drunken drivers. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that while the checkpoints appeared to violate the Fourth Amendment, the public interest in getting drunks off the road trumped constitutional concerns.
Fortunately, the Oregon Supreme Court had ruled three years earlier that sobriety checkpoints violated the state constitution. But now there's a move afoot to bring them back. Some law enforcement officials and anti-drunk driving groups want to put an initiative on the ballot that would declare the checkpoints constitutional. For reasons of practicality as well as principle, it's a rotten idea.
From a practical standpoint, it's doubtful that sobriety checkpoints are very effective at doing what they're supposed to do - busting drunk drivers and reducing highway carnage.
Writing in dissent in the 1990 case, Justice John Paul Stevens noted that "the findings of the trial court, based on an extensive record ... indicate that the net effect of sobriety checkpoints on traffic safety is infinitesimal and possibly negative." A study done in Kansas City in 2007 found that out of more than 18,700 drivers stopped at checkpoints that year, less than 2% were arrested for DUI. The study indicated that saturation patrols - putting lots of cops on the road to flag down drivers who seem impaired - were far more efficient at actually catching drunks.
There's no evidence that there's less drunk driving in states that allow checkpoints than in those that don't, or that Oregon had less drunk driving pre-1987 than it does now. And nationwide, the rates of drunk driving and alcohol-related highway deaths have remained steady since the mid-1990s, even though 39 of the 50 states use checkpoints.
Even if the checkpoints were more effective, the move to reinstate them deserves to be rejected on principle. The legislature, or the voters, shouldn't get in the habit of carving a chunk out of the state constitution every time it seems expedient to do so.
The state supreme court was right to boot sobriety checkpoints in 1987, and we're following its example by giving them THE BOOT now.