Class Action Filed Over Checkpoints
Saturday, June 21, 2008
A civil rights group filed a federal lawsuit yesterday to halt the D.C. police department's new checkpoint initiative, arguing that it is unconstitutional to screen motorists and prevent some from entering certain neighborhoods.
The Partnership for Civil Justice filed the suit on behalf of four District residents who alleged that the checkpoints, set up after a stretch of deadly violence in Northeast Washington, led to "widespread civil rights violations." The suit seeks to bar police from using the program anywhere in the city.
"It is very clear that the District of Columbia is engaged in an unprecedented and unconstitutional system of suspicionless stops and seizures," Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney with the civil rights group, said in an interview.
Responding to a spate of shootings, including a triple homicide, D.C. police set up a checkpoint in the Trinidad area of Northeast Washington to prevent potential gunmen from entering the neighborhood in cars. At random times during a six-day period that ended June 12, officers questioned drivers to make sure they had a "legitimate" purpose for heading into the neighborhood. Some were denied entry. D.C. police hailed the program as a success, noting that no one was killed in the area while the program was running.
Nevertheless, the suit says the tactics were "neither constitutional, nor effective."
"The District's military-style roadblock system was deployed, in part, to give the appearance that the government is addressing" residents' hopes for safe neighborhoods, the suit states.
The lawsuit was filed as a class action to cover all people affected by the program. It also is seeking to stop a years-long initiative in which D.C. police use an array of checkpoints to collect information from drivers and their passengers all over the city. That information is entered into police computer systems used by law-enforcement officials.
D.C. police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said that she worked with the D.C. attorney general's and the U.S. attorney's offices on the checkpoint program and that she had a "legal sufficiency memo" before she went forward with the plan. She has said the Neighborhood Safety Zones could be set up in other areas if the need arises.
"I count on the attorneys to give me guidance. I don't ever act in a vacuum," Lanier said. "I run everything I do by them if I have any concern at all to make sure I do things the right way."
Interim Attorney General Peter Nickles has said that he thoroughly vetted the plan. But at a hearing this week, some D.C. Council members said they had doubts about its legality.
Nickles said yesterday that he had reviewed the lawsuit and that it "seems like an academic treatise that is heavy on the rhetoric but not very heavy on any analysis" of the law. He reiterated his belief that the law is on the city's side.
The lawsuit alleges that four D.C. residents were among those blocked from entering. Caneisha Mills, a Howard University student and hotel worker, said in the suit that she was turned away from Trinidad on June 7 when she refused to give police her identity or information about her activities.
Sarah Sloan, 27, a volunteer for the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, an antiwar and social advocacy group, reported that she was turned away June 11. In an interview, she said she was prevented from entering Trinidad when she refused to give officers details about who she was planning to meet.
"They asked me what I was doing, and I said I was going to a political meeting," Sloan said. "They asked me to give them more information about that meeting, but I didn't feel like I had to give them more details."
The American Civil Liberties Union, which monitored some of the activity, also has been considering a lawsuit. But one of the group's lawyers said yesterday that a lawsuit might be premature.
"We had been of the view that, given the fact that the police department had suspended activity in Trinidad and had no current plans to continue the activity, it may be better to wait and see if they undertake some future action," said Johnny Barnes, executive director of the ACLU National Capital Area. He added that ACLU lawyers would be in contact with the Partnership for Civil Justice and could join the litigation later.
Staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this report.