On Traffic Checkpoints, Part Two, Or, When Does Safety Become Siege? | WisCommunity

On Traffic Checkpoints, Part Two, Or, When Does Safety Become Siege?

We gathered yesterday, Gentle Reader, for a discussion of the constitutionality of highway sobriety checkpoints.

In yesterday’s episode we learned that the Fourth Amendment, according to the Supreme Court, can be ignored if the challenges of enforcing the law seem too burdensome for the Government...and we learned that despite a history stretching all the way back to the 1700s and the British case Entick v. Carrington, the Court was, for the first time, willing to allow general search warrants on American soil.

Today we take the history a bit further...and then we talk about what happens when freedom is given away...and sadly, we need look no further than a few miles from the Capitol Building, in Washington DC itself, to see exactly what happens when freedom is suddenly gone and a community is placed under siege by the police—all, we suppose, for the community’s own good.

We have a lot of ground to cover, so we best get out on the proverbial road—and let’s see if we can avoid our own roadblocks along the way.

In conversation we described how the Supreme Court, in , 428 U.S. 543, had authorized the use of an “area search warrant” (a form of general search warrant) to authorize the stopping and searching of all vehicles passing the Customs and Border Protection immigration checkpoint at San Clemente, California.

This occurred despite the fact that there was no “probable cause”, as required by the , before any of the vehicles were searched—and despite the precedent of a recent similar case, , 422 U.S. 891, in which the Court stated:

The Fourth Amendment [is] held to forbid Border Patrol officers, in the absence of consent or probable cause, to search private vehicles at traffic checkpoints removed from the border and its functional equivalents, and for this purpose there is no difference between a checkpoint and a roving patrol.

The Government had argued that it was impractical to find probable cause before conducting this type of search; therefore they were justified in ignoring the Fourth Amendment and establishing this checkpoint.

The Court agreed, and justified this conclusion by deciding that the searches were not “unreasonable”, and therefore a warrant was not required. Justices Brennan and Marshall, in dissent, reminded the majority that the inconvenience of the Government was no excuse for ignoring the clear language of the Constitution.

"Tyrant! You are a tyrant!"

--Washington State Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders, Attorney General Richard Mukasey, November 20, 2008

But that’s the old business.
Now it’s time to fast forward to Michigan, and a 1990 case, , 496 U.S. 444.

In 1986, Saginaw County, Michigan decided to set up a sobriety checkpoint in their County, and they had the advice of a State-level Sobriety Checkpoint Committee to assist them in planning an operation that would (hopefully) pass legal muster.

The day before the checkpoint went into operation, a lawsuit was filed seeking to shut the program down, and that lawsuit was . (The checkpoint did operate on one occasion, however, and we’ll discuss that evening in a moment.) On appeal, the suit was again upheld, and it was upheld again by the Michigan State Supreme Court.

Each Court agreed that the controlling authority for the decision was the ruling in , 443 U.S. 47, which said that in order to justify an intrusion by Government upon an individual’s privacy, the Government’s action had to pass a “three-prong test”.

In this instance the test required balancing the State’s interest in preventing these accidents, how effective sobriety checkpoints are in reducing the accidents, and how intrusive the checkpoints are upon the citizens.

The Michigan Courts held that the checkpoints were ineffective—and critical to that finding were the results of the one night the checkpoint did operate. Of the 142 cars stopped in the checkpoint’s 75 minutes of operation, only two drivers were cited for DUI.

(As a comparison, the Washington State Patrol was able to reduce traffic deaths , in one year, by increasing enforcement on the highways. Checkpoints are not allowed in the State.)

Beyond that, it was further ruled that the stops were “subjectively” too intrusive to be justified under the Fourth and Amendments to the US Constitution.

The US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case—and they did not agree with the Michigan Supreme Court’s thinking.

The Majority Opinion notes that the average motorist stop was 25 seconds, which they felt was a minimal degree of “objective” intrusion (an opinion shared by the State Court)...but they found no substantial “subjective” intrusion.

This is because, in their opinion, the average motorist should have no “fear or surprise” regarding a checkpoint. An examination of the ruling shows no recognition of any other factor as contributing to a subjective intrusion, including motorist annoyance or resentment.

Further, the Majority felt that stopping the 98.5% of the innocent motorists to catch the other 1.5% was, in fact, effective in ”advancing the public interest” in stopping drunk drivers (the controlling language from Brown v. Texas).

The case was remanded back to the Michigan State Supreme Court so that they might reconsider...and for the rest of the Nation, sobriety checkpoints had the Supreme Court’s seal of approval.

Ironically, in Michigan checkpoints are not allowed to this very day. The State Supreme Court, upon further review (as the referees like to say...), found that the checkpoint program violated the State Constitution’s search and seizure ; and does not permit them within the State.

There are other States that bar the checkpoints for similar reasons—we’ve mentioned Washington and Michigan; Louisiana () and Texas () are others.

So that’s the history.
Now let’s talk about what’s happened since then.

“...for there is nothing as short sighted as a Politician unless it is a delegation of them.”

--, “Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President”

What began as a tool to identify drinking drivers—and what was supposed to have no other purpose—has developed into a multi-purpose enforcement dragnet...exactly as Justices Brennan and Marshall predicted it would in Martinez-Fuerte.

In addition to sobriety checkpoints, we now have “” checkpoints, proposed driver’s license checkpoints in Texas that apparently are actually to identify illegal immigrants...and, in an interesting new twist, we have checkpoints that exist to about crimes that were recently committed at a location. The argument is that questioning everyone who passes by a location is not a stop or a search—even though the police are stopping people and...well, searching them.

Let’s stop for a quick “Checkpoint Bonus”.

If you would like to see exactly what happens when an individual refuses to cooperate with a CBP agent at an immigration checkpoint, have a look at fascinating video, where the driver refuses to answer any questions...and in return, the CBP agent tries to avoid answering the questions “am I being detained?” and “am I free to go?”...and as it turns out, Terry Bressi’s lawsuit seeking to stop checkpoints had a November 20th before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

And with that, let’s return to how checkpoints are used today.


The enforcement seems to be often directed at minority and poor communities...and the vast majority of arrests at the “sobriety checkpoints”, in many locales, are non-DUI/DWI related...and for some agencies, the goal seems to be the rather than the original goal of stopping drunk driving.

According to some of the comments I received after Part One of this story was posted, being the guy with a Grateful Dead sticker on your car might be enough to guarantee you “special treatment”, regularly, no matter if you appear drunk or not. (Sound familiar to anyone?)

Which brings us to Pomona, California.

In Pomona, there is a strong perception that the Police’s traffic checkpoints target illegal immigrants and low-income Blacks and Hispanics.

The local newspaper, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, , pointing out that 90% of the City’s checkpoint operations occur in low-income South Pomona...and, according to the paper, 99% of vehicles seized at the checkpoints are from drivers who were not charged with DUI.

Checkpoints may also have unintended side effects.

The paper points out that Pomona Police only solve 44% of their murder cases...while the State average is closer to 70%. It is suggested the hostile feelings between the community and the Police, caused by the checkpoints, are at the heart of this problem.

The checkpoints in Pomona, the paper reports, have involved as many as 70 officers, and at least one involved the “cordoning off” of a local market, presumably in an effort to snare a large group of shoppers. The paper wonders if criminals are taking advantage of this concentrated Police presence to strike in other parts of the City during the checkpoint operations.

In an effort to “start a dialog” with the community, several off-duty Pomona officers attended a community meeting regarding the checkpoints...and despite what the Supreme Court might think, apparently the “subjective” impact of the checkpoints was strong enough that the on-duty Police had to be called to extricate the off-duty Police from the meeting, according to attendees writing for the “Americans for Legal Immigration” Political Action Committee’s .

Similar complaints are being heard in the area as well.

Our next stop on the “Checkpoints Gone Wild Tour”: Illinois.

In order to “secure” an apartment complex in Rolling Meadows, the local police decided to set up a checkpoint on one of the complex’s 13 entrances—and then they blocked off all access to the other 12.

The checkpoint has been staffed every day from Noon to 8PM.

The 2,000 residents are thus to submit to police scrutiny each and every time they wish to enter or leave their own homes and go anywhere in a car beyond the parking lot during those hours. (We are surprised, frankly, that the police only operate during those hours; we always thought that a lot of crime takes place at night....but what do we know?)

In Washington, Illinois, the local police closed off an entire neighborhood, demanded ID that proves drivers reside in the area, and did not allow outsiders to enter without what they consider to be a “legitimate reason” to be in the area, according to the local chapter of the ACLU.

In an effort to bring this sort of law enforcement to every State, the Federal Government, in the form of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is now pushing the remaining States that don’t allow checkpoints to......something the Governor of my own State, Washington, is trying to make happen...even though the State Supreme Court has already the practice violates the State Constitution.

And finally, as promised, a quick visit to Washington, DC...theoretically, the world’s “Freedom Captiol”.

The City has defended, before a US District Judge, a program that seals off the Trinidad neighborhood after a series of shootings. The Police are also those they feel should not be in the area, and that was the source of the complaint. The ACLU’s :

"My reaction is, welcome to Baghdad, D.C.," said Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the ACLU's Washington office. "I mean, this is craziness. In this country, you don't have to show identification or explain to the police why you want to travel down a public street."

And that, very neatly, describes the problem of checkpoints.

What began as a rare and unusual—and frankly, poorly justified—exception to the Fourth Amendment has morphed into a legal principle that allows law enforcement to choose to seal off entire communities, if they wish, to target populations based on no “particularized suspicion” (which often seems to be a low-income or minority population), to develop ever more creative and tortuous justifications for the targeting—and to do all of this because of our fear of crime, which has apparently overridden our trust in freedom...and because of our unwillingness to tackle the root causes of the problems that checkpoints can never really solve.


December 3, 2008 - 3:23am