D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Strikes Down Police Roadblocks

Good news for those who value our Right to Travel.

On July 10, 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned a lower court ruling regarding the legality of a regime of police checkpoints conducted in Washington, D.C. last year (see video above along with my previous post on this subject). Given that similar checkpoints are starting to pop up in cities such as Philadelphia and Baltimore, the precedent set in this case should send a strong warning to police departments around the country.

In the D.C. case, the Metropolitan Police Department had established a so-called Neighborhood Safety Zone in Trinidad, D.C., the site of five recent deaths involving handguns. The zone was created with the stated purpose of establishing a highly visible police presence, prevent and deter crime, safeguard police and community members and create a safer neighborhood.

The method the police department chose to meet its goals was to block off the entire neighborhood and channel all traffic through several police roadblocks. Anyone attempting to enter the neighborhood in a vehicle was seized at the checkpoint absent any individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. Police would then demand that individual(s) seized provide a legitimate reason for wanting to enter the neighborhood along with proof. Those failing or refusing to provide a legitimate reason or proof on demand were denied entry and those failing to comply with police orders were arrested.

For purposes of the checkpoint, police only considered the following reasons to be ‘legitimate’ for entering the neighborhood:

  • You were a resident
  • Employed or on commercial business
  • Attending school or day care
  • Related to neighborhood resident
  • Seeking medical attention
  • Attending a verified organized civic, community, or religious event

During the time frame in which the checkpoints were conducted, 48 vehicles were denied entry out of 951. Four of the individuals refused entry, including several residents who chose not to beg for permission to return to their homes, went on to sue the police department resulting in the following appeals court ruling.

In its analysis, the appeals court relied heavily on the following U.S. Supreme Court cases:

While I’ve referred to U.S. v Martinez-Fuerte and Indianapolis v Edmond often in this blog, I haven’t referred to Brown v Texas. This is primarily because it’s not a checkpoint case. Rather, it was a stop and identify case where a pedestrian was seized by police absent individualized reasonable suspicion. Here however, the appeals court found the legal issues at play similar enough to rely upon the case in its ruling.

In the D.C. roadblock ruling, the court recognized that SCOTUS has only approved suspicionless 4th amendment seizures for very limited purposes and anything outside of those limited purposes are unreasonable and hence unconstitutional. Since the Washington, D.C. police roadblocks were not limited in scope and were primarily designed to detect and deter ordinary criminal wrongdoing, they were illegal on their face.

The Border Patrol would do well to take note of this ruling. The next court case striking down illegal government checkpoints may very well involve internal suspicionless ‘immigration’ checkpoints used by Border Patrol agents as a pretext to conduct dragnet fishing expeditions on the American people.

A quote from the court ruling appears below followed by a recent Washington Post article on the subject:


“…We further conclude that appellants have sufficiently demonstrated irreparable injury, particularly in light of their strong likelihood of success on the merits. See CityFed Fin. Corp., 58 F.3d at 747. The harm to the rights of appellants is apparent. It cannot be gainsaid that citizens have a right to drive upon the public streets of the District of Columbia or any other city absent a constitutionally sound reason for limiting their access. As our discussion of the likelihood of success has demonstrated, there is no such constitutionally sound bar in the NSZ checkpoint program. It is apparent that appellants’ constitutional rights are violated. It has long been established that the loss of constitutional freedoms, “for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.” Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976) (plurality opinion) (citing New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971)). Granted, the District is not currently imposing an NSZ checkpoint, but it has done so more than once, and the police chief has expressed her intent to continue to use the program until a judge stops her.”

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 11, 2009

A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that checkpoints set up by District police in neighborhoods beset by violence are unconstitutional, effectively ending a crime-fighting tactic that officials say was used in only the most dire circumstances to protect residents.

In a strongly worded opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit condemned the roadblocks, which police used last summer in the city’s Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast Washington. The checkpoints, which have not been used in about a year, were a response to a spate of shootings, including a triple homicide.

“It cannot be gainsaid that citizens have a right to drive upon the public streets of the District of Columbia or any other city absent a constitutionally sound reason for limiting their access,” Chief Judge David B. Sentelle wrote for a three-judge panel. “It is apparent that appellants’ constitutional rights are violated.”

With homicides and other crimes on the decline, officers said they had no plans to set up more roadblocks. But D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said that officers would work to find a “more creative way to deal with very unusual circumstances that is consistent with the Fourth Amendment,” which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney for the Partnership for Civil Justice, which sued the District on behalf of four residents, hailed the ruling as a victory for law-abiding drivers who were questioned at checkpoints. In an effort to quell a series of shootings, drivers were forced to stop at roadblocks and were asked whether they had a “legitimate” reason to be there. Some were denied passage.

“We have always asserted that this program was blatantly unconstitutional, and the mayor and the attorney general should not be running roughshod over the basic fundamental rights of the citizens of the District,” Verheyden-Hilliard said.

Nickles said that he was disappointed in the opinion and that the city would consider whether to appeal to the full appellate court or the Supreme Court. He said that Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has turned to the checkpoints only twice, each time to combat eruptions of violence in Trinidad.

“It was effective,” Nickles said. “People were coming in, using cars to shoot the place up and then escaping in their vehicles.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four District residents who were among those blocked from entering the neighborhood in June 2008. The roadblock was used again the next month.

Linda Leaks, 61, who was among those who sued, said she was heading to a community meeting when police told her to park a few blocks away and walk. “When somebody with a gun on their hips tells you you can not go to this place or that, it’s frightening, and it also makes you really angry,” Leaks said.

She said the court’s decision validates those feelings. “It renews my appreciation for the Constitution, and it gives you a little bit of faith,” Leaks said.

The ruling reverses a decision in October by U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon. The lower court had refused to bar the checkpoints, saying the public had an “overwhelming need to be protected.” Yesterday’s decision sends the case back to District Court for proceedings consistent with the decision, essentially ordering the lower court to grant the request to bar the checkpoints.

Courts have issued conflicting views on the legality of checkpoints, with the outcomes typically based on the purpose of roadblocks. Courts have found that they can be used for specific reasons but not to satisfy a “general interest in crime control.”

Lanier said in a statement that police and the D.C. attorney general “certainly did not attempt to circumvent” the Constitution.

“We all did what was appropriate and what we believed to be lawful to save lives in the Trinidad neighborhood and for the greater good of public safety,” Lanier said.

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said that police can use other approaches to deter crime. “This is not Baghdad,” she said. “It’s the United States of America. People have the right to enter their communities without running through a police gantlet.”

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