High Court Hears Drug Checkpoint Case

James Edmond and Joell Palmer, like more than a thousand other motorists, were stopped in 1998 at roadblocks in Indianapolis designed to catch drug offenders.

Although the two were not arrested, 104 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.

Today, their case arrived at the Supreme Court, the first of several coming this term on the scope of the Fourth Amendment. In the past, the court has upheld roadblocks to check for illegal aliens or drunken drivers, but this case asks whether stops can be used to check for illegal drugs.

The facts of the case are likely familiar to many communities: Starting in August 1998, Indianapolis police announced they were planning a series of roadblocks, but did not disclose their locations.

Dog Signal = Probable Cause?

By November 1998, 1,161 cars were stopped at six roadblocks throughout the city. During the stops, one police officer would ask the motorist for license and registration information while another would peer through the windows, leading a drug-sniffing dog around the vehicle.

A signal from the dog was sufficient probable cause to conduct a search of the vehicle without a warrant.

Edmond and Palmer argue the roadblocks are unconstitutional because looking for illegal drugs is their sole purpose. Indeed, the court has historically ruled that suspicion must be present to justify a search or seizure designed for the primary purpose of criminal investigation.

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.

The majority cited the police department’s motive for setting up the program.

“Indianapolis does not claim to be concerned with protecting highway safety against drivers high on drugs,” wrote appellate court judge Richard Posner. “Its program of drug roadblocks belongs to the genre of general programs of surveillance which invade privacy wholesale in order to discover evidence of crime.”

Sobriety Checkpoints Upheld

Since 1967, however, the court has upheld a number of searches and seizures despite the absence of probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

Sobriety checkpoints, for example, 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.

“The risk here is if we break down this barrier … we will be faced with ever-increasing incursions that will be balanced away,” by the argument that the benefit to the public good outweighs individual privacy concerns, Kenneth Falk, a lawyer for the Indiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the justices today.

A. Scott Chinn, the lawyer for the city, argued today that stopping cars is efficient, because people can carry large amounts of drugs by car.

Justice Antonin Scalia questioned his logic.

“I know of very few burglars who go on foot,” he observed, adding later, “everybody almost usually does everything by car. I don’t see anything special about this.”

The tension in Indianapolis vs. Edmond, to be decided by spring, is between competing views of the Fourth Amendment, explains Ronald Allen, law professor at Northwestern University.

“One way of viewing it is protecting privacy through requiring government to have certain levels of suspicion or knowledge before you can proceed,” he said. Another thread going through search and seizure cases, he said, is preventing random, or arbitrary, searches.

“The issue is can you stop everybody and have a dog sniff?” Allen says. “If your concern is a lack of arbitrariness, the dog will sniff everyone, if it’s privacy, that’s different.”