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Court Rules D.C. Checkpoints Are Unconstitutional

Major Victory for Civil Rights!

The following press release was just sent out explaining the details and political importance of the checkpoints case:

In an unanimous and strongly worded ruling, a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has declared the District of Columbia’s so-called Neighborhood Safety Zone checkpoint program to be unconstitutional, reversing a lower court ruling in favor of the municipality.

The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund filed the lawsuit challenging the military style checkpoint program whereby police may surround a targeted neighborhood, interrogate people without suspicion, and prohibit entry to those persons who lack a police-defined “legitimate reason” for driving into the neighborhood.

“This decision constitutes a major victory for civil rights and civil liberties for people in the District of Columbia and throughout the country,” stated Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, attorney and co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of four D.C. residents. Verheyden-Hilliard continued: “We asserted in our lawsuit that the military-style checkpoints were blatantly unconstitutional and we sought a preliminary injunction in a U.S. federal district court. The lower court ruled in favor of the District of Columbia and the police, and determined that the checkpoint program was legal and constitutional. Today’s U.S. Court of Appeals statement overturned the lower court decision. This decision is extremely significant because if the government had succeeded in establishing military-style checkpoints in D.C., it would have been a model used in urban areas around the country.”

The Court of Appeals language was unambiguous. The panel unanimously ruled that the plaintiffs:

“have sufficiently demonstrated irreparable injury, particularly in light of their strong likelihood of success on the merits. . . 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. . . . there is no such constitutionally sound bar in the NSZ checkpoint program. It is apparent that appellants’ constitutional rights are violated.” (Slip. Op. at 13 14).

The U.S. Court of Appeals held that the residents were entitled to a preliminary injunction that would prohibit further implementation of the checkpoints and reversed the lower court ruling denying that injunction. The Court stated: “In short, we conclude that appellants have established the requisites for the granting of a preliminary injunction. They have made a particularly strong showing of the substantial likelihood of success on the merits and that they would suffer irreparable injury if the injunction is not granted. . . we reverse the district court and remand for further proceedings…” (Slip. Op. at 14).

In its opinion, the appellate court returned repeatedly to the July 19, 2008 statement of MPD Police Chief Cathy Lanier that she would continue to impose mass suspicionless roadway checkpoints “until a judge orders me to stop.” (See Slip. Op. at 5, 14). That day has, quite decisively, come.

According to attorney Carl Messineo, co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice, “This opinion is an emphatic and unambiguous rejection of the mayor and attorney general Peter Nickles’ practice of disregarding our constitutional rights as residents of the District in their zeal to implement publicity-stunt law enforcement measures that do not address the root causes of crime. The checkpoint program has been used as a centerpiece of their aggressive and unconstitutional approach, and it has been decidedly rejected by a unanimous federal appellate court.”

The Court’s decision is available below.