- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2000

Efforts to curb the illegal drug trade are generally laudatory and deserving of our support, but there have been instances of police excess and overzealousness crossing the line from worthy law-enforcement effort to intolerable breach of our civil liberties. Randomly stopping motorists at checkpoints and compelling them to submit to a search for illegal drugs is a case study in such overzealousness that has been, thankfully, ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, in a 6-3 decision in the case of Indianapolis vs. Edmond, the justices ruled that police in the city of Indianapolis went beyond their legal authority in erecting such checkpoints, where motorists suspected of no crime had to endure a search by a dog sniffing for drugs. If the police dog detected any trace of contraband, a more thorough search, by human officers, came next.

Conservative justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissented from the majority opinion taking the position that the searches did not constitute an "undue burden" on motorists and fell within the legitimate prerogative of the interests of the state. "These stops effectively serve the state's legitimate interests," Justice Rehnquist wrote. "They are executed in a regularized and neutral manner. And they only minimally intrude upon the privacy of motorists. They should therefore be constitutional," he added, drawing a parallel between the stops at issue and sobriety checkpoints which have been consistently found lawful on the basis of "compelling state interest."

But there is a distinction and it is an important one between checking for drunk drivers and subjecting stone-cold sober motorists to a criminal investigation in the absence of any reasonable probable cause. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor grasped the essential difference, writing, "We have never approved a checkpoint program whose primary purpose was to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing. Rather, our checkpoint cases have recognized only limited exceptions to the general rule that a seizure must be accompanied by some measure of individualized suspicion."

The problem with the drug searches at issue in the case before the Supreme Court this week was precisely that they were based on a blanket assumption of criminal intent/activity prior to there being any evidence of such and that the issue of illegal contraband has little, if any, connection to highway safety.

If the practices of the city of Indianapolis had been allowed to stand, wrote Justice O'Connor, "there would be little check on the authorities' ability to construct roadblocks for almost any conceivable law enforcement purpose." Absent limits, the existence of Fourth Amendment guarantees against "unreasonable searches and seizures" would become effectively meaningless.

The Supreme Court's decision may make life a little harder for police and even a little easier for drug peddlers. But these costs are well worth the sanctity of our constitutionally guaranteed liberties.

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