Supreme Court
Strikes Down Police
Drug Roadblocks
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declared unconstitutional police roadblocks set up to catch drug offenders, ruling they violate privacy rights of innocent motorists.
In an important victory for advocates of civil liberties, the high court by a 6-3 vote ruled against Indianapolis, where police had erected the roadblocks to stop all motorists in an effort to halt the flow of illegal drugs through the city.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor declared for the court majority that the drug checkpoints violated the constitutional guarantees under the Fourth Amendment protecting against unreasonable searches and seizures of evidence.
O'Connor said the ruling does not affect other roadblocks, which the court has previously held to be constitutional, to detect drunken drivers and to intercept illegal immigrants being smuggled across the U.S. border by car.
She said the court in the past has suggested a roadblock to verify drivers' licenses and registrations would be permissible to serve a highway safety interest.
In the Indianapolis roadblocks, officers check licenses and vehicle registrations, examine motorists for any signs of drug or alcohol impairment and a drug-sniffing dog walks around the outside of each stopped car to detect illegal narcotics.
The city sought to operate the checkpoints so that no motorist was stopped for more than five minutes. In six roadblocks between August and November 1998, more than 1,100 vehicles were stopped and 104 motorists were arrested -- half for drug offenses and half on other charges.
O'Connor wrote in the 15-page opinion that the court has never approved a checkpoint program whose primary purpose was to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.
If the high level of generality used to justify the drug roadblocks was sufficient, there would be little check on the police to construct roadblocks for almost any conceivable purpose, she said.
Drug Problem Does Not Justify Checkpoints
Further, the checkpoint program was not justified by the severe, intractable nature of the drug program, O'Connor said.
If the program were justified by its secondary purpose of keeping impaired motorists off the road and verifying licenses and registrations, then authorities would be able to establish checkpoints for virtually any purpose, she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged the drug roadblocks, hailed the ruling.
``Today's decision sends a clear message that even a conservative court is not willing to countenance the serious erosion of our basic constitutional rights in the name of the war on drugs,'' said Steven Shapiro, the group's national legal director.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, the court's most conservative members, dissented.
``These stops effectively serve the state's legitimate interests; they are executed in a regularized and neutral manner; and they only minimally intrude upon the privacy of motorists,'' Rehnquist wrote.
He said the program complied with prior high court rulings allowing roadblock seizures of automobiles and the addition of a dog sniff did not add to the length or intrusion of the stop.
Rehnquist expressed concern that sobriety and immigration roadblocks ``may now be challenged on the grounds that they have some concealed forbidden purpose.''
Justice Clarence Thomas said the previous rulings on sobriety and immigration roadblocks compelled the upholding of the drug checkpoints.
But Thomas questioned whether the prior rulings should be overturned. He said he doubted whether the authors of the Constitution considered ``reasonable'' a program of indiscriminate stops of individuals not suspected of wrongdoing.

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