Safety Stops Draw Doubts
Monday, May 2, 2005
Lisa Davis had done nothing wrong. She was wearing a seat belt, was obeying the speed limit and produced a valid driver's license when D.C. police pulled her over one recent night at a traffic safety checkpoint in a crime-plagued neighborhood.
Even so, an officer jotted down some basic information before letting her go, including her name, address and the time and location of the stop for a police database used for crime solving.
"I've got some serious constitutional issues with that," Davis said as she sat in her idling Acura at the checkpoint at Kansas Avenue and Shepherd Street NW in the Petworth neighborhood. "I feel like it's a violation of my rights. It's a slippery slope to Big Brother."
The details about Davis and the stop will be fed into the database, which is linked to a computer that includes arrest records and mug shots of criminals. The database allows a detective, for example, to enter into the computer the description of a car that fled a crime scene in hopes of finding a match from a traffic checkpoint.
The city's practice of recording information at traffic safety checkpoints on violators and law-abiding motorists alike -- and sometimes their passengers -- has garnered little attention since police began entering such data into a computer in 2002. Few, if any, of the more than 100 people pulled over almost nightly at the five or six checkpoints in high-crime areas realize that their names and whereabouts will end up in the database.
Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, said he was unaware of the practice but said it sounded like "an abuse."
"They're not entitled to force you to cooperate with them to gather personal information without probable cause," he said.
Others see it differently.
"It's not incriminating in any way. It doesn't hurt [motorists'] reputation; it's not public information," said D.C. police Inspector Kevin Keegan, who heads the two units that target high-crime areas and conduct the vast majority of traffic safety checkpoint stops. "We're not trying to violate someone's civil rights."
Civil liberties advocates aren't the only ones questioning the practice. The policy is sparking concern among some officers who conduct the checkpoint stops, most of which are made in areas where crime, not traffic safety, is the primary concern.
"That's an invasion of privacy, demanding information from a citizen and putting that in a database," said Officer Gregory I. Green of D.C. police, who is assigned to represent the police union. "People are paranoid across the board about giving up information."
The concern is surfacing as Americans try to strike a balance between privacy and safety in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era. At the same time, technological advances have prompted an explosion in the number and scope of databases that capture such personal information as credit ratings, Social Security numbers and shopping habits.