Supreme Court strikes down drug checkpoints


Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court today struck down as unconstitutional random roadblocks intended to catch drug criminals. The court’s most conservative justices dissented.

The 6-3 ruling weighed privacy rights against the interests of law enforcement. The majority found that Indianapolis’ use of drug-sniffing dogs to check all cars pulled over at the roadblocks was an unreasonable search under the Constitution.

The majority, in an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, said the ruling does not affect other kinds of police roadblocks such as border checks and drunken-driving checkpoints. Those have already been found constitutional.

But the reasoning behind those kinds of roadblocks — chiefly that the benefit to the public outweighs the inconvenience — cannot be applied broadly, O’Connor wrote.

"If this case were to rest on such a high level of generality, there would be little check on the authorities’ ability to construct roadblocks for almost any conceivable law enforcement purpose," the opinion said.

Lawyers for Indianapolis conceded that the roadblocks erected there in 1998 detained far more innocent motorists than criminals.

The city said its primary aim was to catch drug criminals. Civil liberties advocates called the practice heavy-handed and risky, and asked the Supreme Court to ban it.

Law enforcement in and of itself is not a good enough reason to stop innocent motorists, the majority ruling concluded.

The court was not swayed by the argument that the severity of the drug problem in some city neighborhoods justified the searches.

"While we do not limit the purposes that may justify a checkpoint program to any rigid set of categories, we decline to approve a program whose primary purpose is ultimately indistinguishable from the general interest in crime control," the majority opinion said.

Cars were pulled over at random in high-crime neighborhoods in Indianapolis, motorists questioned, and a drug-sniffing dog led around the cars. Most motorists were detained for about three minutes.

The city conducted six roadblocks over four months in 1998 before the practice was challenged in federal court.

Police stopped 1,161 cars and trucks and made 104 arrests. Fifty-five of the arrests were on drug charges.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

"Efforts to enforce the law on pubic highways used by millions of motorists are obviously necessary to our society," Rehnquist wrote. "The court’s opinion today casts a shadow over what has been assumed … to be a perfectly lawful activity."

The drug checks were brief, random and in line with the kinds of checks approved in the past, Rehnquist wrote, Also, they helped police find drunks and people driving without proper paperwork, he wrote.

"Because these seizures serve the state’s accepted and significant interests of preventing drunken driving, and checking for driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations, and because there is nothing in the record to indicate that the addition of the drug sniff lengthens these otherwise legitimate seizures, I dissent," the chief justice wrote.

Thomas joined the entire nine-page dissent. Scalia agreed with Rehnquist only in part.

Several other cities have used similar checkpoints, but others were holding off to see what the Supreme Court would say about the Indianapolis case.

The American Civil Liberties Union brought the court challenge on behalf of two detained motorists. ACLU lawyers claimed police had no right to use the roadblocks to investigate criminal drug activity without good reason to suspect one motorist or another.

The Fourth Amendment, which forbids unreasonable searches or seizures, generally protects Americans from random sidewalk questioning by police, or indiscriminate traffic stops.

The court heard arguments in the case in early October, reviewing a federal appeals court ruling that said the Indianapolis checkpoints probably amounted to unreasonable seizures.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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