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Police roadblocks out of control

Police roadblocks out of control
by Vin Suprynowicz

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 Laughlin.

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 drugs.

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 payments.

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 our cars.

The case is Indianapolis vs. Edmond, 99-1030.


Vin Suprynowicz is one of the most articulate spokesmen serving on the front lines of the Freedom Movement we have. Vin's timely and well written articles are syndicated in newspapers all around the country, and they circulate around the world freely on the Internet and in Libertarian publications. He is the author of Send in the Waco Killers, the book that tells the details the media failed to tell in plain English. The best way to get Vin is to subscribe directly to the e-mail distribution list for his column. Send a request to vinsends-request@ezlink.com with "subscribe" in the subject line.

It is an honor to host this man's work, and we encourage you to visit his site and read his book. To read other articles by Vin on this site, click here. You can also see his full archives at these two sites:
http://www.nguworld.com/vindex
http://www.infomagic.com/liberty/vinyard.htm

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