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Supreme Court to decide if drug checkpoints violate the Fourth Amendment
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court will decide in its next term, which begins in October, whether a 1998 Indianapolis traffic roadblock program, under which police officers searched 1,161 vehicles for drugs, violated motorists' Fourth Amendment right to be free from "unreasonable searches and seizures."
The Indiana Civil Liberties Union, which filed a class-action lawsuit against the city in October 1998, argues the roadblock program was unconstitutional because officers did not have "probable cause" to stop or search motorists as required by the Fourth Amendment.
If the high court disagrees, "We could theoretically have pedestrian checkpoints in high-crime neighborhoods," said ICLU lawyer Kenneth Falk, who sued the city and will argue City of Indianapolis v. Edmond before the high court on October 3.
"We can invade the privacy of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of trying to catch a few criminals," he said in an interview. "That would radically change how people view the Fourth Amendment and their own privacy interests."
City attorney A. Scott Chinn said such comments show that the ICLU "misunderstands the context of the checkpoints." He also said Indianapolis police officers searched vehicles only if they had probable cause.
"The context is brief stops of cars on the public roadways. That is much different than stopping a person walking down the road," said Chinn, who will present the city's case before the high court.
He said 75 years of Supreme Court cases have held that people are guaranteed full Fourth Amendment rights if the authorities seek to invade their homes or businesses or stop and search them on the streets without a clear reason.
But in some roadblock cases, the court has tipped the scales in favor of the police, saying the interest in preserving public safety and other societal imperatives outweighs an individual's Fourth Amendment right, Chinn said.
"It's that contextual difference that provides the limitations so that we would not have the problems that Mr. Falk says we will have," Chinn said.
Thomas Goldstein, a Washington attorney who specializes in Supreme Court litigation and has closely monitored the Indianapolis case, said a handful of communities nationwide have roadblocks similar to the Indianapolis model.
Though the court has ruled on immigration and sobriety checkpoints, the specific issue of drug-interdiction roadblocks has never reached the Supreme Court until now, he said. Such roadblocks are illegal in many parts of the country and federal and state courts have been divided over the constitutionality of drug checkpoints, he said.
Details of the program
The drug-roadblock program lasted from August to November 1998. That October, the ICLU filed the lawsuit, which names motorists James Edmond and Joell Palmer and applies to the whole "class" of people who were stopped and searched. The city stopped the program in 1998, but wants to revive it if the high court approves, Chinn said.
City officials posted notices on roadways announcing the checkpoints and the police set them up at six high-crime areas. Though officers primarily focused on arresting motorists transporting drugs, they also looked for other violations such as driving while drugged or expired licenses and registrations, Chinn said.
Officers stopped 1,161 vehicles, making 109 arrests -- 55 for carrying drugs and 54 for other violations, according to Chinn and court papers filed by the city.
To prevent traffic jams, officers were under orders to select five to seven cars in a row and allow the rest to pass through the checkpoints, Chinn said. That policy ensured the police did not arbitrarily target motorists, something the courts have frowned on, he said.
Officers checked the license and registration of each motorist and walked drug-sniffing dogs outside the vehicle. Each "minimally intrusive" stop took two to three minutes, Chinn said.
Officers did not search any vehicle unless the dogs alerted them to the presence of drugs or officers had other means to establish probable cause -- if the officer saw drugs in the car, for instance, or the driver admitted to transporting drugs, Chinn said.
Prior cases involving similar roadblocks
The city argued in court papers that the program was constitutional under guidelines drawn by two prior high court rulings -- U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte of 1976 and Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz of 1990.
In Martinez-Fuerte, the court said a checkpoint is legal as the authorities have higher purposes beyond pure criminal law enforcement for stopping or searching someone, according to the city's filings.
In particular, the court ruled that because the U.S. Border Patrol's primary interest was to preserve this country's sovereignty by curbing illegal immigration, checkpoints where Mexican immigrants were searched did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
In Michigan, which involved driver's license and sobriety checkpoints, the court affirmed the Martinez-Fuerte ruling, adding that checkpoints are legal as long as the officers do not target particular motorists, according to the filings.
Because the Indianapolis program served a greater police interest -- preventing drug-related crimes -- it satisfied the balancing test contained in Martinez-Fuerte the city argued.
The program met the Michigan test because officers checked for licenses while looking for evidence of drugs and did not arbitrarily select which motorists to search, the city argued.
Fifteen states, governmental organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the Justice Department have filed briefs supporting the city, indicating widespread support for drug roadblock programs, Chinn said.
Justice officials said in their filing they have a "substantial interest" in the Indianapolis program because such federal agencies as the Border Patrol and the Drug Enforcement Administration conduct similar checkpoints.
The ICLU dissent
The ICLU countered in legal papers that the Martinez-Fuerte and Michigan cases did not apply because the Indianapolis program was designed to catch criminals, not to serve any higher societal purpose.
"The Indianapolis roadblocks are concerned with one thing, and only one thing -- the discovery of evidence of criminal activity," the civil rights group argued. "The roadblocks do not protect the public safety on the roadways as to vehicle inspections and sobriety checkpoints. The purpose of the roadblocks is to find probable cause to conduct searches to discover unlawful drugs."
By treating "everybody like a criminal," the city trampled on the rights of the innocent majority of those stopped to catch the criminal minority, Falk said in an interview.
The prior cases "featured suspicionless searches and are therefore limited exceptions to the general rule that searches and seizures must be supported by individual cause" and the Indianapolis program did not meet either test, the ICLU argued.
Previous court rulings
An Indiana federal trial court rejected the ICLU's argument, agreeing with the city that the roadblocks were constitutional.
But the ICLU was successful before a three-judge panel at the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, Illinois. In a 2-1 decision issued in July 1999, the appeals court issued an injunction blocking the program.
"Indianapolis does not claim to be concerned with protecting highway safety against drivers high on drugs," Judge Richard Posner wrote. "Its program of drug roadblocks belongs to the genre of general programs of surveillance which invade privacy wholesale in order to discover evidence of crime."
But Judge Frank Easterbrook dissented, saying the Michigan and Indianapolis programs were essentially the same.
"If the Constitution allows a roadblock to intercept alcohol users, how can it condemn a roadblock to intercept marijuana and cocaine users?" he wrote.
After the appeals court rejected the city's request for a rehearing, the city turned to the Supreme Court.
The high court accepted the case in February and is expected to rule next year.
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