The US Supreme Court drew a needed line this week. It ruled police checkpoints, or roadblocks, that have the primary purpose of scrutinizing large numbers of citizens to see if they might be involved in criminal activity, run afoul of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
On one level, this is a common-sense decision. As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the six-vote majority, allowing such practices would undermine the constitutional standard and permit police intrusions to become a "routine part of American life."
But the court had to make some clear distinctions concerning past rulings. It has, for instance, upheld random police checkpoints to catch drunk drivers. In that instance, the court gave special weight to the public's interest in ensuring safe roadways. Similarly, in a past case involving roadblocks near the US-Mexico line, the court emphasized a special need to safeguard the national border.
In this week's case, however, it found no such circumstances to justify the city of Indianapolis's use of roadblocks. The city acknowledged its purpose was to net drug offenders, pure and simple. The court pointed out that such a purpose must be accompanied by "some measure of individualized suspicion."
The court has drawn a useful distinction, based on its constitutional interpretation, that will bolster a protection against excessive state interference in the private lives of citizens.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society