Can the Police Set Up Roadblocks for Any Reason?

Short answer: no. The Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement agencies can only set up roadblocks for “special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement.” (City of Indianapolis v. Edmond). Law enforcement agencies can’t set up roadblocks simply to assist in the normal process of law enforcement; there has to be some kind of special circumstance that justifies the intrusion into the lives of motorists that a roadblock entails.

The problem is that the Supreme Court hasn’t offered much in the way of clear guidance about what exactly constitutes a “special need” that would justify the use of a police roadblock or checkpoint. Instead, law enforcement agencies must examine the reasoning the Court used in the few situations where the Court has specifically approved of roadblocks. This is an inherently imperfect exercise, however, and disputes often arise concerning the constitutionality of police checkpoints.

Background: the Fourth Amendment

When a court examines a roadblock to determine whether or not it is legal, the court must hold it up to the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects the right of the people to be free from unreasonable searches and seizure and requires that warrants for searches and seizures be based on probable cause.

In general, searches and seizures usually require a warrant supported by probable cause. There are a few circumstances where law enforcement officers can conduct searches and seizures without a warrant, as long as the search and/or seizure is reasonable. Usually the reasonableness requirement is satisfied by the existence of probable cause.

In the context of roadblocks and checkpoints, however, the Supreme Court has ruled that a balancing test is more appropriate for determining the reasonableness of a search or seizure than the probable cause standard. The balancing test outlined by the Supreme Court weighs the state’s interest in the objective of the roadblock against the effectiveness of the roadblock in achieving that objective and the intrusion of the roadblock on an individual’s privacy.

Border Security

The Supreme Court first approved of law enforcement roadblocks in a case involving the Border Patrol’s practice of stopping traffic on major highways to prevent the trafficking of illegal aliens. (U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte). The Court also first introduced the idea of a balancing test for roadblocks here. The Court found that the federal government had a strong interest in securing the nation’s borders, that the roadblock was an effective way to determine whether vehicles contained illegal immigrants, and that the roadblock was neither excessively intrusive on privacy rights nor disruptive of traffic flows.

Drunk Driving

The Supreme Court applied the balancing test mentioned above to drunk-driving checkpoints in Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz. The Court found that the state had a strong interest in preventing drunk-driving injuries and deaths. In addition, the Court noted that roadblocks were an effective way of removing drunk drivers from the roads and that the intrusion on sober drivers was minimal.

Specific Crimes

The Supreme Court has also ruled that law enforcement agencies can use roadblocks to help solve specific crimes. For example, in Illinois v. Lidster, the Court held that a police checkpoint for the purpose of gaining information about a hit-and-run accident that occurred at the same location and time of night as the checkpoint was a permissible activity.

Using checkpoints and roadblocks to help combat crime generally runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment, however. In City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, the Court struck down a program of running checkpoints to intercept illegal drugs, ruling that the primary purpose of the program was indistinguishable from the general interest in crime control.

State Constitutions

It is important to note that state constitutions may have stricter search and seizure rules than the federal Constitution, thus certain states might not allow roadblocks even in the situations outlined above. Remember that state constitutions can’t offer less protection for state citizens than the federal Constitution, but they can offer more. For example, several states have prohibited drunk-driving checkpoints based on their state constitution.

Hire a Traffic Ticket Attorney

Law enforcement roadblocks must have a specific purpose outside the normal purpose of preventing crime generally. The state must have a strong interest in that purpose, the roadblock must be an effective way to achieve that purpose, and the roadblock cannot excessively intrude on the privacy of innocent individuals stopped in the roadblock. If you have questions about police roadblocks or are facing a traffic-related crime, speak to a qualified traffic ticket lawyer today.

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