Q: To stop illegal gun possession, would it be considered racial profiling if the police set up roadblocks and checked everyone just as they do for drunken drivers? All traffic going south on Kingshighway in St Louis or east on Illinois 15 and West Main Street would seem good places to start.
I.W., of O’Fallon
A: I’m sure many might consider your idea splendid. Maybe even a current presidential contender or two might endorse it.
Who knows how many gangbangers armed to the teeth you could stop before they added to the area’s homicide total, right? Why, I’ll bet you might even recover a slew of stolen cars and a mountain of illegal drugs in the process.
However, I fear there may be one teensy-tiny problem with your proposal — an annoying little thing called the U.S. Constitution. Although I’m sure you can point out exceptions, we are still supposed to be protected by the Fourth Amendment, which states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Call me a bleeding-heart liberal, but I hope most reasonable people still would consider roadblocks allowing police to rummage through every car as unreasonable.
But, you counter, they can set up alcohol checkpoints, why not gun checkpoints? To serve the greater good, isn’t the public interest to get illegal weapons off the street as compelling as inebriated drivers?
Funny thing is not everybody was on board with the alcohol roadblocks — and they still aren’t. The U.S. Supreme Court first approved such roadblocks in 1990 in the case of Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz. These were the facts:
In Sitz, Mich., a group of motorists challenged the constitutionality of a highway sobriety checkpoint set up by the state police. The operation lasted for an hour and 15 minutes and every vehicle passing through the location was stopped for approximately 25 seconds. When a driver was suspected of being under the influence, he or she was asked to pull over and perform a sobriety test. Out of the 126 motorists checked, only three were suspected of insobriety.
In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled such roadblocks are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment for the following reasons as set out by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who wrote the majority opinion: Drunken driving is a major problem that the state has an interest in eradicating. Furthermore, a 25-second delay was minimally intrusive, and cars could make U-turns to avoid it altogether. Finally, the court deemed it effective even though only one driver ultimately was arrested.
“In sum,” Rehnquist concluded, “the balance of the State’s interest ... weighs in favor of the state program. We therefore hold that it is consistent with the Fourth Amendment.”
The three dissenting justices blasted Rehnquist’s reasoning.
“The findings of the trial court, based on an extensive record and affirmed by the Michigan Court of Appeals, indicate that the net effect of sobriety checkpoints on traffic safety is infinitesimal and possibly negative,” wrote Justice John Paul Stevens.
“That stopping every car might make it easier to prevent drunken driving ... is an insufficient justification for abandoning the requirement of individualized suspicion,” added Justice William Brennan.
Ironically, the Sitz case went back to Michigan, and the state’s Supreme Court eventually found DWI roadblocks to be in violation of the state’s constitution, a decision that took precedent over the Supreme Court ruling. Similarly, other states have banned them as well as being too intrusive and unreasonable even if everyone is stopped for only a few seconds.
There are just too many problems even with that kind of stop, the National Motorists Association argues. For example, in the Sitz case, police could not even ask for license and registration unless they suspected the driver was intoxicated. Moreover, a driver would not have had to consent to a search of a car unless the police had probable cause that the car contained contraband (seeing illegal items through the window, for example) or if the driver were arrested.
Are you starting to understand the problems with your proposal? Police could stop every car from now until doomsday but without the ability to search inside, it would only be a waste of time for all involved. The motorists group, for example, urges all law-abiding citizens to cooperate with the police — rolling down your window, showing your license when requested, etc.
But, the group says, you have a right to refuse to answer all questions, including those involving your travel plans, contents of your car, etc. And you have a right to refuse searches unless the police have a warrant or have probable cause or reasonable suspicion that you are transporting illegal items — and they should be asked to explain what they think they will find and why they think those items are in your vehicle. Otherwise, they could be held criminally and civilly liable for conducting an illegal search — even if contraband is found.
That’s why on Nov. 28, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Indianapolis v. Edmond that the Indianapolis Police practice of using roadblocks to check cars for illegal drugs using drug-sniffing dogs did violate the Fourth Amendment.
“We cannot sanction stops justified only by the generalized and ever-present possibility that interrogation and inspection may reveal that any given motorist has committed some crime,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote. (Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.)
Given the outcry over far less draconian proposals to combat gun violence, I’d say your idea would be shot down like Bonnie and Clyde at its very mention.
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Answer to Friday’s trivia: In 1942, famed composer Igor Stravinsky wrote “Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant” for legendary choreographer George Balanchine. Balanchine used it to create a ballet for 50 elephants and 50 ballerinas for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.