Improbable cause

Posted: Friday, December 01, 2000

The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on Wednesday.

There's a saying that the U.S. Supreme Court has never run into a police roadblock it didn't like. Checkpoints to intercept drunken drivers? Sure. Stops to verify the licenses and registrations of motorists? Fine. Highway blockades near the border to snatch illegal immigrants? Those are legal too.

It looked as if law enforcement agents could use random roadblocks for any reason. Constitutional guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures didn't appear to protect innocent people who happened to be on the wrong road at the wrong time.

But no more. On Tuesday the justices finally put on the brakes. By 6-3, they said the police can't intrude on the privacy of law-abiding drivers to nab a handful of possible drug traffickers.

The case involved police officers in Indianapolis setting up big dragnets to ferret out drug dealers. Stemming the flow of narcotics into a city is an important and well-intentioned goal. But to carry it out, the police would detain and question everyone driving by the checkpoints. Motorists didn't get to leave until the officer was convinced that no drugs were hidden in the car.

Two innocent people caught up in these blockades sued. To stop them and inspect their cars, the drivers argued, an officer should need a good reason to suspect they've committed a crime. That kind of warrantless search requires at least a suspicion that the individual was breaking the law. The roadblocks allowed the police to skirt that requirement based on a mere fear that drugs might be coming into a neighborhood.

"If this case were to rest on such a high level of generality," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court, "there would be little check on the authorities' ability to construct roadblocks for almost any conceivable law enforcement purpose."

Blockades designed to police the national border or ensure roadway safety such as DUI checkpoints are unaffected by Tuesday's decision. The court previously has said the Constitution permits those stops.

Instead the ruling is an overdue reminder to law enforcement that innocent people have some constitutional right to be left alone when behind the wheel. And even this conservative court won't allow the war on drugs to change that.

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