Supreme Court Rulings
The Fourth Amendment requires that searches and seizures be reasonable. The Supreme Court has found in various rulings that a search or seizure is ordinarily unreasonable in the absence of individualized suspicion of wrongdoing, except in limited circumstances in which the usual rule does not apply.
The court has also found that the only constitutionally allowed roadblocks are those carried out pursuant to a plan containing explicit, neutral limitations on the conduct of the individual officers executing the roadblock.
• United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 1976: The Court upheld brief, suspicionless seizures at a fixed checkpoint designed to intercept illegal aliens. The lawsuit brought Fourth Amendment challenges to stops at two permanent immigration checkpoints located on major U.S. highways less than 100 miles from the Mexican border. The court response noted at the outset the particular context in which the constitutional question arose, describing in some detail the “formidable law enforcement problems” posed by the northbound tide of illegal entrants into the United States. Although the stops in Martinez-Fuerte did not occur at the border itself, the checkpoints were located near the border and served a border control function made necessary by the difficulty of guarding the border’s entire length.
• Delaware v. Prouse, 1979: In this lawsuit, the Court invalidated a discretionary, suspicionless stop for a spot check of a motorist’s driver’s license and vehicle registration. The officer’s conduct in that case was unconstitutional primarily on account of his exercise of “standardless and unconstrained discretion.” However, the Court has also suggested that a similar roadblock to verify drivers’ licenses and registrations would be permissible to serve a highway safety interest.
• Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, 1990: The Court evaluated the constitutionality of a Michigan highway sobriety checkpoint program aimed at removing drunk drivers from the road. This checkpoint program was clearly aimed at reducing the immediate hazard posed by the presence of drunk drivers on the highways, and there was an obvious connection between the imperative of highway safety and the law enforcement practice at issue. The gravity of the drunk driving problem and the magnitude of the State’s interest in getting drunk drivers off the road weighed heavily in the Court’s determination that the program was constitutional.
• City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 2000: The Court considered the constitutionality of a highway checkpoint program whose primary purpose is the discovery and interdiction of illegal narcotics. Because the Court found the primary purpose was to uncover evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing, the program contravenes the Fourth Amendment. According to the ruling, “our checkpoint cases have recognized only limited exceptions to the general rule that a seizure must be accompanied by some measure of individualized suspicion.” The court declined to suspend the usual requirement of individualized suspicion where the police seek to employ a checkpoint primarily for the ordinary enterprise of investigating crimes and said they could not sanction stops justified only by the generalized and ever-present possibility that interrogation and inspection may reveal that any given motorist has committed some crime.
Sources: Supreme Court rulings and the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service.
DALTON, Ga. — The Dalton Police Department may be violating a U.S. Supreme Court ruling if it holds police roadblocks to address specific criminal activity, according to a Georgia law professor and several lawyers.
However, Dalton police said they are familiar with the Supreme Court ruling, and the roadblocks held in recent weeks are primarily for traffic safety and not to address criminal activity. The checkpoints are held in accordance with any Supreme Court ruling, Chief Jason Parker said.
Dalton police sent out several news releases in June after meeting with local Hispanics about complaints that police roadblocks target them in an effort to arrest illegal immigrants. The department held 38 roadblocks this year through June, according to the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety website.
One news release, sent out June 29, says police plan to conduct roadblocks in various parts of the city “as part of the department’s district plans to address traffic and crime problems within the city.”
“In addition to typical traffic concerns in the area of Shugart Road and the Bypass, other checks are possible in the northwest section to address burglary and shoplifting issues,” the news release goes on to say. “One issue being reported in the west district is the theft of copper wire being stolen from buildings. The district action plan in the east district also includes concentrated patrols, including road checks if manpower allows, in the northeast area of the city to address burglaries which have been reported over the past several weeks.”
A 2000 Supreme Court ruling, City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, says that police may not operate a police checkpoint program in which the primary purpose is to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.
“We decline to suspend the usual requirement of individualized suspicion where the police seek to employ a checkpoint primarily for the ordinary enterprise of investigating crimes,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the ruling. “We cannot sanction stops justified only by the generalized and ever-present possibility that interrogation and inspection may reveal that any given motorist has committed some crime.”
Donald E. Wilkes Jr., a professor of law at the University of Georgia School of Law who has taught criminal procedure for 40 years, said if Dalton police hold roadblocks to “address burglaries” as the news release says, they may be violating the 2000 ruling.
“If that is what they are doing, it seems to me to clearly violate Edmond,” Wilkes said. “The question in the Edmond’s case was if roadblocks can be held for the purpose of catching people who might have drugs in their car. And they [the Supreme Court] found that it was not justified for general crime reasons.”
The first thing to remember about Supreme Court rulings on roadblocks is that all rulings have found that a police roadblock is a search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment and must be reasonable, Wilkes said.
“To stop people’s cars is a seizure,” he said.
A search and seizure ordinarily is unreasonable, except in cases of individual suspicion of wrongdoing. However, several Supreme Court rulings have found that such seizures at police checkpoints are legal for certain reasons.
In United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, ruled in 1976, the Supreme Court found that Border Patrol checkpoints, held close to the U.S. border, were permissible to intercept illegal aliens and to protect the integrity of the border.
A more recent ruling, the Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz from 1990, addressed the issue of sobriety checkpoints. The immediate hazard posed by the presence of drunken drivers was enough reason to allow police to hold roadblocks, the ruling found.
A previous ruling, 1979’s Delaware v. Prouse, suggested that a similar type of roadblock with the purpose of verifying driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations would be permissible.
But in the Edmond case, O’Connor writes, “In none of these cases, however, did we indicate approval of a checkpoint program whose primary purpose was to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.
“If we were to rest the case at this high level of generality, there would be little check on the ability of the authorities to construct roadblocks for almost any conceivable law enforcement purpose,” she added. “Without drawing the line at roadblocks designed primarily to serve the general interest in crime control, the Fourth Amendment would do little to prevent such intrusions from becoming a routine part of American life.”
The recent roadblocks held in Dalton did not have the primary purpose of detecting criminal wrongdoing and were held very differently than those in the Edmond case, Parker said.
In the Edmond case, police stopped cars to look for illegal drugs. After a car was stopped, an officer asked for a license and registration while a narcotics-detection dog walked around the outside of each vehicle.
Parker said his officers conduct their checkpoints in accordance with all Supreme Court rulings. People who are stopped are never asked about a particular crime in the area. Unless police have reasonable suspicion to ask additional questions, drivers are asked only for their license, registration and insurance, he said.
The recent news releases may sound like police are holding roadblocks to target criminal activity, but only if someone is not aware of the police department’s entire checkpoint program, Parker said. The primary purpose of the program is traffic safety, although the high visibility of police in the area may serve as a crime deterrent.
“Some people could read it to mean that, but our checkpoints actually differ from the way they were held in the Edmond case,” Parker said. “Those cases were totally contrary to what we do.”
Several lawyers who were asked about the Dalton news releases disagreed with Parker.
“It is certainly skirting the edge of the law,” said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta attorney who represents several Hispanics who were stopped in Dalton roadblocks. “I would think it likely borders on unconstitutional. If I had a client who was stopped and charged with a crime, I’d be filing a Fourth Amendment lawsuit.”
Karen Wilkes, the daughter of Donald Wilkes and a lawyer in Rome, Ga., used stronger language.
“I have absolutely no hesitation to say what you described is illegal,” she said. “The whole point of roadblocks is for road safety, not to target criminal activity.”
But Parker said that is not what has happened in Dalton.
“The police should not and could not just throw out the dragnet for any type of crime,” he said. “We are aware of the constitutional rulings on checkpoints.”
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...