Supreme Court strikes drug checkpoints

By Anne Gearan

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – In a significant ruling on the use of police power, the Supreme Court struck down random roadblocks intended for drug searches, saying they are an unreasonable invasion of privacy under the Constitution.

Law enforcement in and of itself is not a good enough reason to stop innocent motorists, the majority concluded Tuesday in the first major ruling of the new term.

“It’s going to stop us from getting a lot of drugs,” said Alex Norwood, officer in the Tupelo Police Department’s Special Operations Group.

According to Norwood, driver license checkpoints are not set up arbitrarily, but set up in areas where police have received complaints.

“We only set up in places where it’s needed.”

“Because the checkpoint program’s primary purpose is indistinguishable from the general interest in crime control, the checkpoints contravened the Fourth Amend-ment,” which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote.

The court’s three most conservative justices dissented, saying the roadblocks Indianapolis set up in high-crime neighborhoods served valuable public safety and crime-fighting goals. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

“Efforts to enforce the law on public highways used by millions of motorists are obviously necessary to our society,” Rehnquist wrote. “The court’s opinion today casts a shadow over what has been assumed … to be a perfectly lawful activity.”

Thomas joined the entire nine-page dissent. Scalia agreed with Rehnquist only in part.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, like O’Connor a sometime “swing vote” between the court’s ideological poles, sided with her in the majority.

The American Civil Liberties Union had sued on behalf of two detained motorists, and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago eventually found the practice was probably unconstitutional.

O’Connor stressed that the high court ruling does not affect other police roadblocks such as border checks and drunken-driving checkpoints, which have already been found constitutional.

During oral arguments in October, several justices seemed troubled by the notion that by unwittingly driving into the checkpoint, a motorist is open to a criminal investigation that presumably would not have happened otherwise.

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