By Linda Greenhouse
New York Times
WASHINGTON The Supreme Court this week endorsed the
use of police roadblocks as an investigational tool for finding
witnesses to recent crimes.
Overturning a ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court, which
found the tactic unconstitutional in the absence of a reason
to suspect a given motorist of involvement in a crime, the
justices held that a properly established "information-seeking
checkpoint" was a valid way for the police to enlist
the public's assistance.
All nine justices agreed that the roadblocks could be constitutional,
depending on the circumstances. They divided 6 to 3, though,
in appraising the roadblock in this case.
The police in Lombard, Ill., a Chicago suburb, set it up
on a highway where exactly one week earlier a hit-and-run
driver killed a bicyclist. The police stopped drivers for
10 to 15 seconds each to ask if they had any knowledge of
the accident. One man who was arrested at the roadblock for
drunken driving brought the constitutional challenge that
led to the Supreme Court case.
The majority opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer held that
given the "grave" public concern about a fatal accident,
this roadblock was well planned, minimally intrusive and constitutionally
reasonable. Three other justices, though, said they did not
have enough information to draw that ultimate conclusion.
Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader
Ginsburg said the Illinois courts should review the case again
and pursue such questions as, for example, whether the police
had a basis for believing that the roadblock would be more
effective at finding witnesses than leaflets placed on the
cars of employees who worked nearby and who might have been
changing shifts at the time of the accident. The Illinois
Supreme Court did not inquire into the circumstances of the
Lombard roadblock because it concluded that such roadblocks
were unconstitutional regardless of circumstances.
The State Supreme Court had based that conclusion on a roadblock
case from Indianapolis that the justices decided in 2000.
In that case, Indianapolis v. Edmond, the court found unconstitutional
a roadblock at which the police walked around cars with a
drug-sniffing dog, seeking evidence of drug crimes. The justices
found that the police lacked "individualized suspicion"
that the drivers they stopped might be engaged in crime. Without
such suspicion, the roadblock was an unreasonable seizure
under the Fourth Amendment, the court said then.
In the case on Tuesday, Illinois v. Lidster, No. 02-1060,
Justice Breyer said the informational roadblock differed significantly
from the drug-detection roadblock the court considered earlier.
"The stop's primary law enforcement purpose was not to
determine whether a vehicle's occupants were committing a
crime," he said, "but to ask vehicle occupants,
as members of the public, for their help in providing information
about a crime in all likelihood committed by others."
Justice Breyer added that "the law ordinarily permits
police to seek the voluntary cooperation of members of the
public in the investigation of a crime." At another point
in the opinion, noting that the court's precedents permitted
sobriety checkpoints and roadblocks at the country's borders,
he observed: "The Fourth Amendment does not treat a motorist's
car as his castle."
When the case was argued in November, Justice Breyer made
it clear that he regarded the roadblock as only a minimal
inconvenience, little different from an ordinary traffic tie-up.
He noted that he had been delayed a few minutes by roadside
tree-trimming on his way to the court that morning.
The man who challenged the roadblock's constitutionality,
Robert Lidster, was arrested after he swerved when approaching
the roadblock and nearly hit one of the officers. He failed
a sobriety test and was convicted of drunken driving, a conviction
that the state appellate courts overturned.
The roadblock led only indirectly to catching the hit-and-run
driver whom the police were seeking. Television coverage of
the roadblock prompted a viewer to call the police and identify