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US Supreme Court Bans Drug Roadblocks
by Erowid -- November 28, 2000

The U.S. Supreme Court decided November 28, 2000 that an Indianapolis Police practice of using roadblocks to check cars for illegal drugs using drug-sniffing dogs violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches. Their decision is an excellent small victory for those who believe the War on Drugs has been used to justify a chilling erosion of rights in the United States over the last 30 years.

In a 6 to 3 ruling, with the arch-conservatives Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas dissenting, Justice O'Connor, writing for the top US court, said "We cannot sanction stops justified only by the generalized and ever-present possibility that interrogation and inspection may reveal that any given motorist has committed some crime."

The case involved police roadblocks set up around "high-crime areas" in Indianapolis, stopping a set number of cars, questioning the passengers, asking for driver's license & registration, sometimes asking drivers if the police could search the car, and then walking a drug-sniffing dog around the car before the drivers were allowed to move on. If a dog "alerted" on a car, the occupants were taken out and the vehicles searched thoroughly. Two of those drivers who had their vehicles searched and were found to have no illegal drugs sued the city in federal court to stop the practice.

The lawyers for the police took a legal risk by stipulating (agreeing to as fact) that the police were doing the stops for the sole purpose of stopping drugs. Previous Supreme Court rulings had allowed roadblocks and random car stoppings for intoxication checks and for illegal alien checks near the Mexican border. By arguing their case they way they did, the police were hoping to get a blanket OK from the courts to set up roadblocks for any reason they chose. The court made it clear that the police lost because they were using roadblocks primarily as crime-stopping tools and not to protect against "imminent public danger (such as danger from drunk drivers). Indianapolis's decision to seek a narrow ruling on the concept of Drug Roadblocks also allowed the Court to rule very narrowly against these roadblocks and thus the Court did not have to re-consider the issue of whether other roadblocks are Constitutional.

O'Connor wrote for the court: "Because the primary purpose of the Indianapolis checkpoint program is ultimately indistinguishable from the general interest in crime control, the checkpoints violate the Fourth Amendment."

The High Court, however, made very clear that this decision does not disallow other types of roadblocks:
"It goes without saying that our holding today does nothing to alter the constitutional status of the sobriety and border checkpoints that we approved [in previous cases], or of the type of traffic checkpoint that we suggested would be lawful in Prouse. The constitutionality of such checkpoint programs still depends on a balancing of the competing interests at stake and the effectiveness of the program."

In dissent, Rehnquist denied that the constitution protected citizens from having traffic stopped at random for dog-sniffs and seeking criminals. He argued that the stops, the inquiries of occupants about illegal drugs, the requests to search vehicles, the false-alerts and failed searches, and the dogs walked around the cars were a "minimal intrusion on the privacy of motorists". Despite Indianapolis's stipulation to the fact that they were conducting these roadblocks primarily to find illegal drugs, Rehnquist argues that it is "constitutionally irrelevant" what the purpose of a roadblock is, so long as it does stop some intoxicated drivers. Rehnquist argues that motorists have nearly zero expectation of privacy, nor any reasonable expectation to be free from 'seizure' (being stopped or questioned without the freedom to leave).

In an interesting and quizzical separate dissent, Thomas suggests that he may be against the previous case law that allows random roadblocks in the first place. Although he sides with Rehnquist & Scalia in this decision, he states: "Indeed, I rather doubt that the Framers of the Fourth Amendment would have considered "reasonable" a program of indiscriminate stops of individuals not suspected of wrongdoing."

For the full texts of the decisions and dissents, see Cornell's Indianapolis v. Edmond (99-1030) 183 F.3d 659