Vice Squad
Tuesday, January 13, 2004
Supreme Court Upholds Unusual Roadblock

The US Supreme Court declared today (13-page decision in PDF format here) that a police checkpoint of motorists aimed at gathering information of a specific crime (committed on the same stretch of highway almost exactly one week earlier) did not violate the unreasonable search and seizure protections of the Fourth Amendment. The vote was 6-3, with Justices Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg in partial dissent.

The case arose because a motorist stopped at the checkpoint was arrested for and found guilty of drunk driving. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld a state appellate court ruling that the stop was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court decision today overturns the Illinois Supreme Court ruling.

The basis for the state Supreme Court ruling was the earlier Supreme Court decision in Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000). In that case, police roadblocks designed to detect drug trafficking, in the absence of any individualized suspicion, were ruled to infringe Fourth Amendment rights. The Supreme Court today was unanimous in determining that the Edmond decision was not controlling in the Illinois case. Among other reasons, today's case was distinguished because the purpose of the Illinois roadblocks was simply to gather information about a previous crime, not to uncover crimes committed by the stopped motorists. The majority went on to determine that the Illinois checkpoint was reasonable, in that the public concern was substantial and the checkpoint considerably advanced this concern, without being overly broad, and while being only a minimal infringement upon liberty. (The Supremes seem to have more amiable encounters with police than the rest of us do.) The dissenters argued that the case should have been returned to Illinois for the state courts to determine (at least, at first) whether the roadblock was reasonable.

Vice Squad (in his days as a Crescat guest) noted the oral arguments in this case last November. The issue fell into what is becoming an old chestnut for Vice Squad, the threat to Fourth Amendment rights posed by the asymmetry of cases: almost all the relevant cases (including this one) are brought by factually-guilty criminals. A finding that the stop was unconstitutional would be tantamount to letting such a person go free. While some searches are found to be unconstitutional, it would not be surprising for justices to stretch a point (perhaps subconsciously) when faced with the alternatives of either a finding of constitutionality, or freeing a factually-guilty party.

Thanks to Will Baude at Crescat Sententia for the pointer.

Update, January 14: This post at Crimlaw makes an impassioned dissent from the Supreme Court decision.

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