Court Refuses to End Checkpoints

Officers man a checkpoint in June on Montello Avenue in the Trinidad community in Northeast Washington.
Officers man a checkpoint in June on Montello Avenue in the Trinidad community in Northeast Washington. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008

A federal judge yesterday cleared the way for D.C. police to continue using checkpoints to screen motorists going into neighborhoods beset by crime, saying that the public had an "overwhelming need to be protected" from gunmen in cars.

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon strongly endorsed the tactics that were used for 14 days in June and July in the Trinidad area, a Northeast Washington neighborhood near Gallaudet University. Residents there pushed for action after a spate of shootings, including a triple homicide May 31. But the roadblock on Montello Avenue NE drew complaints from those who said the police had no legal right to ask drivers whether they had a legitimate reason to be there.

The Partnership for Civil Justice, an organization that has filed other challenges to the police, sued the District on behalf of four residents and asked the judge for an injunction to stop the checkpoints until broader legal issues are decided. But Leon refused to issue the court order. And, even though he did not make a final ruling on the case, he made it clear that he saw a need for the initiative.

"Suffice it to say that the public's interest in deterring violent crime of this type through a checkpoint program this carefully crafted is overwhelming," Leon wrote in a 31-page opinion. "Simply put, to take this arrow out of [D.C. police's] quiver on such a weak showing as to its unconstitutionality would be injurious not only to [D.C. police's] ability to protect our citizens, but to the public's overwhelming need to be protected from these mobile merchants of violence."

Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, Acting Attorney General Peter Nickles and other officials launched the Neighborhood Safety Zone effort at the behest of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who wanted a bold solution to the trouble in Trinidad. The plan was reminiscent of tactics employed by the D.C. police in the 1980s, when crack cocaine led to a much bigger surge in killings and other violence.

Courts have issued conflicting opinions on the legality of checkpoints, with the rulings typically hinging on the purpose of the roadblocks. They cannot be used, for example, to satisfy a "general interest in crime control" but can be set up for specific reasons. In this case, the city argued that it was on solid legal ground because many of the shootings taking place in Trinidad were done by people firing from cars or by criminals who raced off in vehicles after the mayhem. Drive-by shootings have long been a problem in many parts of the city.

Lanier said she was pleased by the decision and would use more checkpoints as the need arises. When she announced the program last spring, Lanier said that police could target other areas, but so far only Trinidad has gotten the attention.

"We really just wanted to stop the violence, and I believe that is why he ruled the way he did," the chief said in an interview. "We didn't harm anyone. We are trying to stop harm. . . . We are not using this willy-nilly."

In arguing its case, the city said that the checkpoints were launched after a year in which Trinidad had recorded 25 assaults with guns -- including five that led to deaths. In a court filing, Lanier said the checkpoints would be a "fence" to keep out violent criminals using cars and not a "net" to capture evidence of ordinary crimes.

All told, police stopped 951 vehicles going into Trinidad, a neighborhood bounded on the west by Gallaudet University, on the east by Bladensburg Road, on the north by Mount Olivet Cemetery and on the south by Florida Avenue. They denied entry to 48, citing the motorist's failure or refusal to provide a valid reason to go there.

Legitimate reasons for entering the area included living in the neighborhood, visiting a doctor, picking up a child or seeing a relative. If people refused to provide such information, they could park and walk into the area.

The lawsuit alleges that the checkpoints led to "widespread civil rights violations" and were not "constitutional or effective." The two sides sparred over whether the strategy was effective. The suspect later arrested in the triple homicide lived in the Trinidad area, leading critics to say checkpoints wouldn't have stopped him from shooting.

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