On the local front, citing bad publicity as well as lack of any
justification for the policy, Las Vegas Metro police this week suspended
their "administrative traffic checkpoints" in the riverfront casino town of
Beneath the gentle-sounding name, Metro spokesman Capt. Mike Ault
describes what confronted a motorist who ran into one of these "Papers,
please!" checkpoints south of Las Vegas, admitting the military style of
the roadblocks -- complete with officers in green fatigues and snarling
dogs -- "looked bad." Though future checkpoints have not been ruled out.
That would be up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the further good news
this week came on that front, as the high court announced it will take up
an Indianapolis case turning on whether police can randomly stop motorists
to search for illegal drugs.
The Midwestern city began its "narcotics checkpoints" in the summer of
1998. A predetermined number of cars were pulled over at one time and
drivers were asked to show police their licenses and registration while
dogs walked around the parked cars for about three minutes, sniffing for
In the program's first four months, police conducted six roadblocks in
high-crime areas and stopped 1,161 vehicles. The stops led to 104 arrests,
55 of them on drug-related charges.
Kenneth Falk, the Indiana Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing two
men who challenged the police practice, points out that once such searches
are allowed in a random hunt for drugs, it won't be long before cops are
pulling drivers out of their cars for failing to make child-support
The Fourth Amendment supposedly restricts searches to cases where
authorities have "probable cause" to suspect a specific crime; the courts
have long required police to obtain court warrants to detain drivers for
longer than it takes to write up a citation for a minor traffic offense.
The problem is that in recent years, the nation's highest court has
allowed the camel's nose under the tent, authorizing "sobriety checkpoints"
aimed at randomly detecting inebriated motorists, as well as "border
roadblocks" (some now operating hundreds of miles from the border) to track
down illegal immigrants.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the checkpoints used by
Indianapolis are different. If Indianapolis authorities had reason to
believe a terrorist were driving toward the city in a car packed with
dynamite, they could block all roads and stop thousands of drivers "without
suspecting any one of them of criminal activity," the appeals court said.
"But no such urgency has been shown here."
Well ... OK. But in the end, such hair-splitting only leaves police and
drivers both uncertain of what's proper.
Even in the Indianapolis case, the appeals court said the trial judge
might find another reason to uphold the checkpoint program, musing, "The
high hit rate of Indianapolis' roadblock scheme suggests ... areas of the
city in which drug use approaches epidemic proportions. If so, the
roadblocks may be justified."
Really? Even if every charge led to a conviction, would anyone be shocked
to learn that 5 percent of drivers in an urban area are using illegal drugs
of one kind or another? And does that really justify suspending the rights
of the other 95 percent?
In a participatory democracy, where defendants are guaranteed a trial by
a randomly-selected jury of their peers -- a system purposely designed to
render convictions impossible under any law opposed by as little as 10
percent of the people -- the court could just as well have suggested that
this "hit rate" demonstrates that winning drug-charge convictions before
random juries in such jurisdictions may be prima facie impossible, and that
this whole attempt at a new Prohibition would thus be better off abandoned.
At any rate, the continuing parade of such cases, in which citizens'
rights depend on an interpretation by local police of whether the offense
in question could represent an "immediate" or "urgent" danger to the
driving public, demonstrates what a Pandora's box the court opened with its
1989 "drunk-driving roadblock" decision.
As is so often the case, this "little exception" to the Fourth Amendment
has already been stretched wide enough to drive a Peterbilt through.
Instead of splitting hairs, the Supreme Court should now revisit that 1989
decision, close the loophole, and return Americans to the way things are
supposed to work in a free country: unless police have probable cause to
suspect us of some specific crime, we remain "secure in our person, houses,
papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures" -- even in
The case is Indianapolis vs. Edmond, 99-1030.