- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 9, 2009

Police checkpoints that cordoned off a crime-plagued D.C. neighborhood last year were an “extraordinary” measure that “flies in the face” of prior court rulings and violates the Constitution, a lawyer for plaintiffs opposed to the barriers told a federal appeals court Friday.

“It is beyond the ordinary from anything we have seen this department do and beyond the ordinary of anything we have seen the Supreme Court recognize,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a lawyer with the Partnership for Civil Justice, which sued the District on behalf of four plaintiffs over its use of the checkpoints last year.

Ms. Verheyden-Hilliard argued before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that a lower court judge erred last year when he refused to order the Metropolitan Police Department to stop using the checkpoints, which were instituted twice in 2008 to halt a series of shootings in the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast.

The strategy, modeled after a similar New York City initiative, was first implemented in June after a triple homicide and again in July following the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old boy.

It allowed police to bar drivers of vehicles who did not live in Trinidad or have a reason for being there from entering the neighborhood. Officers were authorized to request identification and motorists could be denied entry for not verifying a legitimate purpose for entering, such as being employed within the affected zone.

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon in October refused to issue a preliminary injunction in the case and said the plaintiffs did not show the program was unconstitutional or that the absence of an injunction would lead to “irreparable harm.”

The plaintiffs say that the purpose of the city’s checkpoints is general crime control. The Supreme Court has said checkpoints cannot be used for general crime-fighting purposes without violating the Fourth Amendment, except in limited circumstances.

Ms. Verheyden-Hilliard also noted Friday that the District has reserved the right to use the checkpoints again, and said the measure prevents motorists from entering a neighborhood to accomplish a task like buying groceries.

“The irreparable harm is the deprivation of their fundamental constitutional rights,” she said.

D.C. Solicitor General Todd Kim said city officials recognize the program is “extreme” but that it falls outside of general crime-fighting purposes and is designed to deter “imminent” spikes in violence.

“Specifically, crime waves where people drive into these neighborhoods and shoot people up,” Mr. Kim said.

Mr. Kim also stressed that the plaintiffs have failed to show irreparable harm would result if police were still allowed to implement the checkpoints, and noted the infrequency of their use.

“We have two instances in the course of a year where this program has been active,” he said.

It is not known when the judges will issue a ruling in the case. An underlying federal lawsuit seeking to strike down the checkpoints is still pending.

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