Justices Strike Down Drug Checkpoints

W A S H I N G T O N, Nov. 28, 2000 -- The U.S. Supreme Court today struck down the police practice of executing random drug searches at highway checkpoints, calling the practice a violation of Americans’ right to privacy.

With the court’s most conservative members dissenting, the justices ruled against the city of Indianapolis, voting 6-3 that the police use of roadblocks and random stops to cut the flow of illegal drugs through the city was unconstitutional.

“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” protection against unreasonable searches,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the majority opinion.

At the roadblocks, police officers checked license and vehicle registrations, motorists were examined for any signs of drug use and a drug-sniffing dog walked around the outside of each stopped car. If the dog signaled it smelled drugs, police considered that probable cause to conduct a search.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented. Rehnquist said the checkpoints only involved a “minimal intrusion on the privacy” of the occupants of the vehicles.

1,161 Stops, 104 Arrests

The case was brought by James Edmond and Joell Palmer, who, like the drivers of 1,161 other cars, were stopped at in one of a series of roadblocks carried out over four months in 1998.

The two were not arrested, but 104 others were — 55 for drug offenses and 49 for other problems. Edmond and Palmer filed a class-action lawsuit against the city, claiming the roadblocks violated the Constitution’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

O’Connor said the ruling will not affect other sorts of roadblock initiatives, such as border checks and those aimed at preventing drunken driving.

Sobriety checkpoints have been upheld on the grounds that instead of catching criminals, they have public safety as their goal. The government’s interest in protecting the public from impaired drivers outweighs privacy concerns, the court has ruled.

O’Connor wrote that the same logic does not apply with drug roadblocks. “If this case were to rest on such a high level of generality, there would be little check on the authorities’ ability to construct roadblocks for almost any conceivable law enforcement purpose,” the opinion said.

Privacy Outweighs Drug Problem

The court was not swayed by the argument that the severity of the drug problem in some city neighborhoods justified the searches.

Lawyers for Indianapolis conceded that the roadblocks detained far more innocent motorists than criminals.

A lower court judge upheld the Indianapolis roadblock program, but a panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the decision by a 2-1 vote.

ABCNEWS.com’s Geraldine Sealey, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.