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Vehicle Checkpoints

Jack Ryan

Over the past decade the United States Supreme Court has decided three cases dealing with law enforcement checkpoints involving car stops by police officers without individualized suspicion to believe that the operator of the vehicle had done anything wrong.

In Michigan v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990), the Court approved of Sobriety Checkpoints where the police were acting pursuant to set guidelines that limited police discretion as to which vehicles would be stopped. The checkpoints in Sitz also provided motorists with notice of the checkpoint. The Court reasoned that there was a substantial government interest in removing impaired drivers from the road due to the dangerousness such drivers posed to other motorists.

In Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000), the Court examined police checkpoints utilized for the purpose of uncovering evidence related to narcotics. The police would set up a checkpoint where vehicles would be stopped so that officer could look for evidence of drug crimes committed by the vehicle’s occupants. At the checkpoint police would examine, from the outside, the vehicle’s interior and walk a drug-sniffing canine around the exterior of the vehicle.

In rejecting the checkpoints in Edmond, the court noted that these checkpoints were directed at general crime control rather that removing dangerous drivers from the roadway as occurred in Sitz. The Court held that the stops in Edmond, which were not supported by individualized suspicion were not consistent with Fourth Amendment principles absent special circumstances such as those existing in Sitz.

This term, the Court examined another checkpoint case. In Illinois v. Lidster, 540 U.S. ____ (2004), the Court reviewed the arrest of an impaired driver at an informational checkpoint.

The checkpoint in Lidster resulted in the aftermath of a hit and run accident that killed a 70 year old bicyclist. A week after the hit and run fatality, the police set up a checkpoint close to the location of the accident and at the same time of night stopping vehicles for 10-15 seconds in an effort to seek information about the hit and run accident from motorists who frequented the area. The officers handed each motorist a flyer alerting them to the hit and run accident and seeking assistance.

When Mr. Lidster approached the checkpoint in his van, he swerved and nearly struck one of the officers. Upon approaching Mr. Lidster the officer smelled alcohol on his breath. A second officer administered a field sobriety check and arrested Lidster. Lidster was convicted of driving under the influence. Lidster challenged his conviction arguing that Indianapolis v. Edmond prohibited this type of police checkpoint and all of the evidence obtained against him was the result of this unlawful police action.

In upholding this informational checkpoint, the Supreme Court distinguished the checkpoint here, from the narcotics checkpoint in Edmond. The Court noted that the primary purpose in the Lidster checkpoint was to solicit the assistance of motorists; it was not to “determine whether a vehicle’s occupants were committing a crime.” In fact, the checkpoint here was not directed at motorists coming through the checkpoint, but was instead directed at gaining information/evidence against other individuals.

The Court noted that these informational checkpoints by their nature are presumptively brief and are less likely to provoke anxiety on the part of motorists. As such the Court concluded that these stops were less intrusive on a motorist’s privacy interest and need not be supported by individualized suspicion. The Court compared these informational roadblocks to a consensual contact that takes place between a pedestrian and an officer on the street.

The Court was not concerned that such checkpoints would spring up with any regularity. The Court recognized that law enforcement agencies have limited resources which would not support regular checkpoints. The Court also suggested that society’s hostility to such checkpoints would limit the police use of such checkpoints.

In applying the rules to the checkpoint in question the Court noted that the crime, a hit and run fatality of a seventy-year-old bicyclist was a grave offense. The law enforcement objective was to obtain information about a specific and known crime, “not unknown crimes of a general sort.”

The Court was impressed by the fact that the police had narrowly tailored the checkpoint to meet the objectives of law enforcement. Specifically, the checkpoint was conducted approximately one week after the hit and run. The checkpoint was held at a location near the hit and run scene and at about the same time of night. Finally, all the vehicles were systematically stopped (no discretion on the part of the officers.)

The Court concluded that informational checkpoints such as the one conducted here, seeking information and assistance for a serious offense, did not violated the Fourth Amendment’s general requirements concerning individualized suspicion and random stops.


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