The Supreme Court, in its first response to increased state efforts to crack down on drunk driving, yesterday let stand Virginia's use of sobriety roadblocks to catch violators.
The justices declined without comment to hear the appeal of a motorist in Charlottesville who argued that use of such roadblocks violates constitutional prohibitions against unreasonable searches.
The court's action, which sets no precedent, comes as states are increasingly using such roadblocks and state courts are split on whether the checkpoints are constitutional.
At least 30 states and the District of Columbia have used roadblocks, according to Anne Russell, an official with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. At least 17 challenges have been made in various state courts, she said.
Most state courts have upheld use of checkpoints, three have ruled them unconstitutional and other courts have said state laws must be reworked to pass constitutional muster, she said.
Russell and Washington-area American Civil Liberties Union legal director Arthur Spitzer, whose organization opposes the roadblocks, said yesterday's action was the first time the court has had an oppportunity to address the issue.
The justices ruled in 1979 that certain random stops of motorists were unconstitutional but, in a footnote, said they were not ruling then on the constitutionality of roadblock-type stops. Yesterday's action does not preclude further court review of the issue.
Yesterday's case, Lowe v. Virginia, began two years ago when Jimmy Dale Lowe was stopped at a checkpoint in Charlottesville. Last November, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld his conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol, saying that the checkpoints were a "minimal inconvenience" when balanced against the state's "strong interest in protecting the public from the grave risk presented by drunk drivers."
Maryland's highest court in 1984 upheld use of similar roadblocks but with strict qualifications. The D.C. Court of Appeals has not ruled on the issue.
In other action yesterday, the court agreed to hear several more cases next fall, including:
* Two challenging the "exclusionary rule" barring illegally seized evidence from being used in court.
In Colorado v. Bertine, the court is to decide whether the Fourth Amendment forbids searches of closed containers found in cars impounded by police. In Illinois v. Krull, the justices agreed to consider whether items seized by police acting in good faith under a law later found unconsititutional may be used at trial.
* Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Groetzinger, on whether a full-time gambler is engaged in a trade or business for tax purposes. The broader question of what is a "trade or business" -- which arises frequently in cases involving securities investors and gamblers -- has split lower courts that have tried to answer it.
* A challenge to an Alabama law designed to cut down appeals filed by imposing a 10 percent penalty on defendants who unsuccessfully appeal judgments against them. At issue in Burlington Northern Railroad Co. v. Woods is whether the state law is unconstitutional because it imposes no similar penalties on plaintiffs who file appeals.
* An argument by Pennsylvania coal mine operators that a state law restricting mining amounts to an unconstitutional taking of their property by the state without adequate compensation. The case is Keystone Bituminous v. Duncan.
* One asking whether the federal Water Pollution Control Act permits residents to use their state courts and state law to sue a polluter in another state court for damage to a lake bordering on both states. The case is International Paper Co. v. Ouellette.