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A Reality Check on D.C. Checkpoints

Feature by PCJF co-founder Mara Verheyden-Hilliard

Reprinted from The Washington Post

In June, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, his attorney general and the D.C. police announced the introduction of a military-style checkpoint program under which police stop drivers and allow only those with a police-approved “legitimate reason” to continue on the public roadway. This strategy is sorely in need of a reality check — or three.

Reality check No. 1: Let’s say that you are driving home, exhausted from work, lugging groceries and carrying your child in the back seat. Lights, police and roadblocks await you. Your car is stopped, an armed police officer comes over and you must roll down your window. Your child begins crying. You must now prove to the police officer’s satisfaction that you have the right to drive on your own block.

Visiting a friend? You are driving lawfully down the street when you find yourself blocked by police cars. The police suddenly approach your car, flashlight shining. Your license plate number is written down. The officer demands to know who you are, where you are going, what your purpose for driving is, and the name, address and phone number of your friend. He tells you that your reason for driving is not “legitimate”; now you cannot drive past the roadblock.

William Robinson, a retired school teacher, coach and 50-year resident of Trinidad, told me that former students simply stopped visiting him during the checkpoints. They turned around because they didn’t want to have to answer to the police for just a social call. Robinson is among the plaintiffs suing to end the checkpoint program, which was endorsed in October by the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia and is now on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. According to Robinson, the checkpoints stigmatize the whole community: “It’s like living under martial law in a police state.”

Reality check No. 2: One might say the checkpoint is an unfortunate inconvenience but that at least it is a way to reduce violent crime. A worthwhile trade-off of constitutional rights for security, so the argument goes. But that is not the case.

According to statistics the D.C. police have filed with the court, comparing the initial Trinidad checkpoint period to the week immediately preceding it, violent crimes increased 100 percent, as did nonviolent crimes, during the checkpoint period. Also, the number of violent crimes committed during the checkpoint period in the police-designated “neighborhood safety zone” was 10 percent greater than the average for the nine weeks immediately preceding it and more than 40 percent greater than the average for the preceding seven weeks. Shootings surged elsewhere in the city while police were mobilized (or more accurately, immobilized) to stop lawful drivers at Trinidad checkpoints. The June checkpoints in Trinidad were suddenly halted after a night during which nine people were shot in other parts of the city. D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has referred to some of her policing tactics, including the All Hands on Deck police deployment program, as primarily a public relations tactic. “Absolutely, it’s a public relations stunt — and it works!” she told a Post reporter in August.

Reality check No. 3: Eight years ago, the Supreme Court stated, “Without drawing the line at roadblocks designed primarily to serve the general interest in crime control, the Fourth Amendment would do little to prevent such intrusions from becoming a routine part of American life.” Both the federal and local courts of this jurisdiction have described as unconstitutional attempts to impose crime control checkpoints on the public — even without interrogation components or the refusal of passage. Seventeen years ago, a D.C. court ruled that the District’s crime “deterrence rationale” for roadblocks was “antithetical to the Fourth Amendment.”

The District is engaged in a dangerous and unprecedented expansion of police power. If the police could use the existence of crime to justify the suspension of constitutional protections, there would be no Constitution left to speak of.

The District needs more than photo-opportunity responses to problems, and its residents deserve respect for their most basic rights. Common sense and the Constitution demand no less.

The writer, a constitutional rights attorney and co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice, is representing the plaintiffs suing to end the checkpoint program.