High Court Agrees to Review Indiana Law Allowing Random Roadside Drug Searches

February 22, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court today agreed to review whether police can routinely set up traffic checkpoints with drug-sniffing dogs to stop motorists in a completely random effort to catch people who sell or use illegal drugs.

The case, City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, No. 99-1030, was brought as a class action by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two individuals and the citizens of Indiana, all of whom are subject to the random roadside searches. The case will be argued in the Supreme Court’s 2000-2001 term, which begins next October.

“One of the freedoms we take for granted is the ability to drive and not be subject to random searches by police who are seeking evidence of criminal activity,” said Kenneth J. Falk, Legal Director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and lead counsel in the case. “The Indianapolis policy challenges this freedom.”

Under the roadblock policy, all traffic is stopped while drivers’ licenses and registrations are checked, drug sniffing dogs are deployed and officers look into cars to determine if there is some probable cause for a further search. If the dogs alert the officers to the possible presence of drugs or if the visual inspection by the officers creates some cause, then a further search would be conducted. If there were no cause for further search discovered, the cars would be allowed to leave the roadblock area.

Falk, who successfully argued the case before a federal appeals court last year, said he believes that the lower court ruling conforms with Supreme Court precedent and that the Justices may be seeking to resolve whether such unconstitutional searches can be “mixed” with searches concerned with traffic safety.

In its 2 to 1 decision, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Illinois found that the purpose of the roadblocks was to investigate potential criminal activity and that the Fourth Amendment requires that criminal investigatory searches and seizures must be based on cause. This distinguished the drug roadblock stops from sobriety checkpoints which have been upheld by the Supreme Court. Sobriety checkpoints are not designed to investigate potential crimes, but are designed to assure traffic safety.

“The issue here is not whether catching drug traffickers is important, but whether our basic constitutional rights can be suspended in pursuit of such a goal,” Falk said. “Today it’s drugs, tomorrow it’s deadbeat parents, and the next day it’s parking fines. Where does it end?”

As the ACLU said in its brief, “It is undoubtedly easier to fight the war on drugs if police are given the power, through the ruse of conducting license and registration checks, to stop every car and attempt to determine if there is some cause to search the car and its inhabitants. However, the Fourth Amendment stands as an impediment to efforts of the government which result in the cutting of constitutional corners, even if the government identifies its efforts as being for the public good.”

The ACLU’s brief in the 7th Circuit is online:

The ACLU’s reply to the government’s brief in the 7th Circuit is online:

The 7th Circuit Court’s decision is online:

The ACLU’s opposition to the Cert Petition to the U.S. Supreme Court is online:

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