The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution imposes limits on the search-and-seizure powers of law enforcement—it allows only searches and seizures that are “reasonable.” And the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly said that when police stop a vehicle, it’s a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes. For any seizure—including a traffic stop—to be reasonable, police normally must have a reasonable suspicion that the person being seized has done something wrong.
With checkpoints, however, that’s not how it works: Law enforcement detains vehicles—sometimes every vehicle that passes—without having any reason to believe a traffic violation or crime has been committed. Here’s what the U.S. Supreme Court has told us about the legality of checkpoints and roadblocks.
(This article is about the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Keep in mind that your state’s laws might offer more protections.)
Balancing the Interests at Stake
Checkpoint stops are considered seizures under the Fourth Amendment. But the Fourth Amendment doesn’t prohibit all seizures—just “unreasonable” ones. Basically, the Supreme Court has said that a checkpoint is reasonable—and therefore legal—when the public interest in having it outweighs the intrusion and inconvenience to drivers. The Supreme Court noted the determination required consideration of the:
- gravity of the public interest served by the checkpoint
- degree to which the checkpoint serves the public interest, and
- severity of the intrusion and inconvenience to motorists.
“Public interest” in this context means law enforcement’s “primary purpose” in setting up the checkpoint. (City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000); Illinois v. Lidster, 540 U.S. 419 (2004).)
Checkpoints Approved by the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court has approved checkpoints in three types of situations:
- permanent immigration-enforcement checkpoints near borders
- temporary sobriety checkpoints aimed at removing impaired drivers from the road, and
- temporary information-gathering checkpoints for police to obtain information about a completed crime.
The Court also suggested that license and registration verification might be another legitimate purpose for a checkpoint. (U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976); Michigan Dep't of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990); Illinois v. Lidster, 540 U.S. 419 (2004).)
In City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000), however, the Court found a checkpoint violated the constitution. There, police set up a “drug checkpoint” with the purpose of “interdicting” illegal narcotics. The Court found the checkpoint violated the Fourth Amendment because its primarily purpose—intercepting illegal drugs—was indistinguishable from the state’s “general interest in crime control.” If that were enough to justify a checkpoint, the Court explained, there would be little to prevent law enforcement from making checkpoints a “routine part of American life.”
Talk to an Attorney
If you’ve been accused of a crime, get in contact with a qualified criminal defense lawyer. Search-and-seizure law is complicated, full of exceptions, and constantly changing. Talk to an experienced criminal attorney in your area to find out how the law applies in your case.