You are in a car heading across town to an important meeting - late, as usual. On the highway ahead, you notice a flashing sign and a police officer waving all the cars off to the side of the road.
An officer asks to see your license and registration and says you have been stopped at a narcotics checkpoint. While the officer verifies your paperwork, another officer leads a drug-sniffing dog around the car.
Are you offended at the implicit accusation? Upset over the inconvenience and delay? Or is it worth it to help rid society of the problem of drug abuse and narcotics trafficking?
With police eyeing such roadblocks as a potential tool in America's antidrug arsenal, drivers may have to start asking such questions. But more important is whether such searches are legal under the US Constitution.
That's the question the US Supreme Court will consider today, when the justices take up the case of two drivers who sued Indianapolis officials after being stopped at narcotics checkpoints.
Neither driver was arrested. Nor had they done anything wrong. And that's their point.
The essence of their case is that the Constitution requires that the police not be able to detain people without reasonable suspicion that a particular individual has committed a crime. Random dragnets violate this fundamental principle of the Fourth Amendment, they argue.
A federal appeals court panel agreed in a 2-to-1 decision, striking down the Indianapolis program. But now the city is asking the Supreme Court to reverse that decision, a move that would give a green light to law-enforcement officials across the country to set up similar drug-detection roadblocks.
"This case, if the Supreme Court reverses, will bring the Fourth Amendment home to all Americans," says Ken Falk, legal director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, which is arguing the case at the high court on behalf of the two innocent drivers.
Lawyers for the city counter that the Supreme Court has recognized certain exceptions to the rule, like when police set up roadside sobriety checkpoints to keep drunk drivers off the highways. In addition, they argue that the inconvenience to innocent motorists of a two-to-three minute
stop is more than counterbalanced by the government interest in enforcing narcotics laws.
Police view the roadblocks as a highly effective tool for detecting drug couriers. When Indianapolis instituted its checkpoint program from August to November 1998, out of 1,161 cars stopped, police arrested 104 motorists - 55 of them for drug offenses.
"Because of the ease with which drugs are concealed and transported in automobiles, the city's interest in using checkpoints to battle illegal drugs is substantial," says A. Scott Chinn, a lawyer for the city in his brief to the court. "The court has often recognized that the scourge of illegal drugs presents one of the greatest problems affecting the health and welfare of our population."
The Clinton administration agrees. US Solicitor General Seth Waxman says in his brief to the court that the drug checkpoints are no different than other roadblocks. "Drug trafficking's attendant social costs - in lost lives, violence, crime, and general public disorder - parallel, if not exceed, those public-welfare concerns that sustain sobriety checkpoints," the government's brief says.
In addition to the administration, 15 states, as well as the National League of Cities and the National Governors Association have filed briefs urging the court to uphold the drug checkpoints.
On the other side of the case are the American Civil Liberties Union, the Association of Federal Defenders, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. In their brief, the defense lawyers association questions the reliability of drug dogs in the context of random, roadside operations.
"Cases litigated in the lower courts reveal that when dogs are asked to inspect those whom officers have no articulable basis to suspect, false positives can exceed 96 percent," the brief says.
In addition, many Americans feel intimidated when police dogs are present, policy opponents argue. To subject motorists to such an ordeal with no reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing erodes privacy rights by basing law-enforcement operations on the mere possibility of a chance encounter with an actual criminal, they say.
"These roadblocks rely on a large police presence and dogs circling each car," writes Mr. Falk in his brief. "As a result, they represent a much greater intrusion ... on law abiding motorists who are unfortunate enough to be stopped."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society