The holidays are in full swing…or at least they are in the US…which means your days—and nights—are full of running around like crazy. There’s a million things to do, a thousand errands to run, and…are you kidding me?!
A police sobriety roadblock?
That’s right: there’s a crowd of officers all around you, there’s no way to avoid it…and even though you’ve committed no crime whatsoever, you get to talk to the police…and if they decide it’s acceptable, you may continue on your way.
How can this be legal in America?
Does it actually serve any purpose?
And what happens when the police decide to blockade your neighborhood–for your own good?
Believe it or not, it’s my job today and tomorrow to answer those questions…and beyond that, to defend the simple right of Americans to go somewhere if we feel like it, without having to explain it to the police…and in today’s discussion, I intend to set the stage through an examination of history.
Sobriety checkpoints are an effective law enforcement tool involving the stopping of vehicles or a specific sequence of vehicles, at a predetermined fixed location, to accomplish two goals: raise the public’s perception of being arrested for driving while impaired (DWI ), and detection of drivers impaired by alcohol and/or other drugs.
–National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Low-Staffing Sobriety Checkpoints”
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
–The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
So, you might ask, how is it that the Fourth Amendment is interpreted to allow searches that are not based upon any probable cause whatever—in fact, that aren’t directed toward any particular individual, but instead, against anyone and everyone that can be processed through a location?
Oddly enough, this whole story, you could say, starts at Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) San Clemente Station, an immigration checkpoint located roughly 60 miles north of the Mexican Border near San Diego, California (and the home of the famous “running family” traffic signs), where all northbound traffic on the Interstate 5 Freeway is required to stop for an inspection by CBP officers.
If an officer chooses, he can order any vehicle, for any reason, or for none at all, to pull over for a “Secondary Inspection”. That inspection can lead to a search of the vehicle, and possibly the arrest of its occupants.
A Mr. Amado Martinez-Fuerte was arrested at the checkpoint, after such an inspection, for illegally transporting aliens (the two passengers in his car), and when he got to trial his attorney moved to suppress all evidence based on a Fourth Amendment claim, specifically that absent any particular probable cause, the stop and search of his vehicle were illegal. That claim was denied at trial, but upheld upon appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
His claim and a case with similar context but a differing result from the Fifth Circuit were eventually consolidated and reconciled by the United States Supreme Court in 1976 in United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543.
“The scheme of the Fourth Amendment becomes meaningful only when it is assured that at some point the conduct of those charged with enforcing the laws can be subjected to the more detached, neutral scrutiny of a judge who must evaluate the reasonableness of a particular search or seizure in light of the particular circumstances.
And in making that assessment it is imperative that the facts be judged against an objective standard . . . . Anything less would invite intrusions upon constitutionally guaranteed rights based on nothing more substantial than inarticulate hunches, a result this Court has consistently refused to sanction…
… This demand for specificity in the information upon which police action is predicated is the central teaching of this Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. ”
—Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S., at 21-22
The Fourth Amendment [is] held to forbid Border Patrol officers, in the absence of consent or probable cause, to search private vehicles at traffic checkpoints removed from the border and its functional equivalents, and for this purpose there is no difference between a checkpoint and a roving patrol.
—United States v. Ortiz, 422 U.S. 891
And with those inspiring words to guide them, the Court’s majority decided to completely ignore the text of the Fourth Amendment and established precedent and uphold the right of Government agents to search you, even if you’re not suspected of anything at all (and in fact, upholding the “inarticulate hunch” standard)…because the Court felt it was really inconvenient to have to have a reason to search people:
To require that such stops always be based on reasonable suspicion would be impractical because the flow of traffic tends to be too heavy to allow the particularized study of a given car necessary to identify it as a possible carrier of illegal aliens. Such a requirement also would largely eliminate any deterrent to the conduct of well-disguised smuggling operations, even though smugglers are known to use these highways regularly.
In order to justify this line of thought, the majority adopted a line of logic that suggested that the Government had an overriding need to stop the smuggling of aliens, that this is an effective way to prevent the smuggling of aliens…and that you would find the fact that you have to be stopped and searched as you go about your day—even though you’ve done nothing wrong—so minimal of an intrusion that a warrant would be unnecessary. From the majority opinion:
While the need to make routine checkpoint stops is great, the consequent intrusion on Fourth Amendment interests is quite limited. The stop does intrude to a limited extent on motorists’ right to “free passage without [428 U.S. 543, 558] interruption,” Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 154 (1925), and arguably on their right to personal security. But it involves only a brief detention of travelers during which
“`[a]ll that is required of the vehicle’s occupants is a response to a brief question or two and possibly the production of a document evidencing a right to be in the United States.'” United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, supra, at 880.
Strangely enough, what the majority finds concerning is that citizens might object to being stopped and searched because the people running the operation might be some sort of fake police—not the fact that we’re being stopped and questioned in the first place:
“[T]he circumstances surrounding a checkpoint stop and search are far less intrusive than those attending a roving-patrol stop. Roving patrols often operate at night on seldom-traveled roads, and their approach may frighten motorists. At traffic checkpoints the motorist can see that other vehicles are being stopped, he can see visible signs of the officers’ authority, and he is much less likely to be frightened or annoyed by the intrusion.” 422 U.S., at 894-895…
… The regularized manner in which established checkpoints are operated is visible evidence, reassuring to law-abiding motorists, that the stops are duly authorized and believed to serve the public interest….”
Beyond that, the majority felt that there is a justification for certain forms of “general search warrants”, based on a prior building inspection case (Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523)…meaning that a magistrate can legally issue an “area warrant” permitting the search of any vehicle passing a particular place.
Is this “checkpoint search” technique effective?
According to the record in the case, only 1 in 1,000 vehicles stopped and questioned at the checkpoint contained any deportable aliens, and more than ¾ of the vehicles stopped for Secondary Inspection were in fact unconnected with any smuggling activity.
My guess is that the police could simply choose vehicles that contain Mexican-looking drivers randomly and achieve similar results—and that guess is based on the fact that, at the checkpoint, that’s basically what they do, as the record reveals.
We are going to wrap this up in a minute, but I want to offer a few salient quotes from the dissent in this case:
Today’s decision is the ninth this Term marking the continuing evisceration of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures… the Court’s decision today virtually empties the Amendment of its reasonableness requirement by holding that law enforcement officials manning fixed checkpoint stations who make standardless seizures of persons do not violate the Amendment. This holding cannot be squared with this Court’s recent decisions in United States v. Ortiz…
…This defacement of Fourth Amendment protections is arrived at by a balancing process that overwhelms the individual’s protection against unwarranted official intrusion by a governmental interest said to justify the search and seizure. But that method is only a convenient cover for condoning arbitrary official conduct…
…The motorist whose conduct has been nothing but innocent – and this is overwhelmingly the case – surely resents his own detention and inspection. And checkpoints, unlike roving stops, detain thousands of motorists, a dragnetlike procedure offensive to the sensibilities of free citizens. Also, the delay occasioned by stopping hundreds of vehicles on a busy highway is particularly irritating…
… Every American citizen of Mexican ancestry and every Mexican alien lawfully in this country must know after today’s decision that he travels the fixed checkpoint highways at the risk of being subjected not only to a stop, but also to detention and interrogation, both prolonged and to an extent far more than for non-Mexican appearing motorists…
… Finally, the Court’s argument fails for more basic reasons. There is no principle in the jurisprudence of fundamental rights which permits constitutional limitations to be dispensed with merely because they cannot be conveniently satisfied.”
So that’s today’s Part One: the sobriety checkpoint that has you ensnared and irritated—again—is only Constitutional because our Government feels that when it comes to catching criminals it’s just too big a pain to follow the rules we set out for them…and all of this is based on an immigration control checkpoint ruling.
When we return, we’ll examine another ruling, Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz (496 U.S. 444), which specifically authorized sobriety checkpoints…then we’ll see how checkpoints have morphed into something that, at its worst, allows authorities to literally lay siege to a neighborhood, as is happening even today in the Nation’s Capitol…and, finally, we’ll examine the efforts by the Federal Government to spread checkpoints to the states that today ban them.