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Federal Courts Says D.C. Police Checkpoints Were Unconstitutional

D.C. police officers stopped drivers last summer in a Northeast neighborhood beset by several shootings.
D.C. police officers stopped drivers last summer in a Northeast neighborhood beset by several shootings. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 11, 2009

A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that checkpoints set up by District police in neighborhoods beset by violence are unconstitutional, effectively ending a crime-fighting tactic that officials say was used in only the most dire circumstances to protect residents.

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In a strongly worded opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit condemned the roadblocks, which police used last summer in the city's Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast Washington. The checkpoints, which have not been used in about a year, were a response to a spate of shootings, including a triple homicide.

"It cannot be gainsaid that citizens have a right to drive upon the public streets of the District of Columbia or any other city absent a constitutionally sound reason for limiting their access," Chief Judge David B. Sentelle wrote for a three-judge panel. "It is apparent that appellants' constitutional rights are violated."

With homicides and other crimes on the decline, officers said they had no plans to set up more roadblocks. But D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said that officers would work to find a "more creative way to deal with very unusual circumstances that is consistent with the Fourth Amendment," which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney for the Partnership for Civil Justice, which sued the District on behalf of four residents, hailed the ruling as a victory for law-abiding drivers who were questioned at checkpoints. In an effort to quell a series of shootings, drivers were forced to stop at roadblocks and were asked whether they had a "legitimate" reason to be there. Some were denied passage.

"We have always asserted that this program was blatantly unconstitutional, and the mayor and the attorney general should not be running roughshod over the basic fundamental rights of the citizens of the District," Verheyden-Hilliard said.

Nickles said that he was disappointed in the opinion and that the city would consider whether to appeal to the full appellate court or the Supreme Court. He said that Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has turned to the checkpoints only twice, each time to combat eruptions of violence in Trinidad.

"It was effective," Nickles said. "People were coming in, using cars to shoot the place up and then escaping in their vehicles."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four District residents who were among those blocked from entering the neighborhood in June 2008. The roadblock was used again the next month.

Linda Leaks, 61, who was among those who sued, said she was heading to a community meeting when police told her to park a few blocks away and walk. "When somebody with a gun on their hips tells you you can not go to this place or that, it's frightening, and it also makes you really angry," Leaks said.

She said the court's decision validates those feelings. "It renews my appreciation for the Constitution, and it gives you a little bit of faith," Leaks said.

The ruling reverses a decision in October by U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon. The lower court had refused to bar the checkpoints, saying the public had an "overwhelming need to be protected." Yesterday's decision sends the case back to District Court for proceedings consistent with the decision, essentially ordering the lower court to grant the request to bar the checkpoints.

Courts have issued conflicting views on the legality of checkpoints, with the outcomes typically based on the purpose of roadblocks. Courts have found that they can be used for specific reasons but not to satisfy a "general interest in crime control."

Lanier said in a statement that police and the D.C. attorney general "certainly did not attempt to circumvent" the Constitution.

"We all did what was appropriate and what we believed to be lawful to save lives in the Trinidad neighborhood and for the greater good of public safety," Lanier said.

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said that police can use other approaches to deter crime. "This is not Baghdad," she said. "It's the United States of America. People have the right to enter their communities without running through a police gantlet."

Staff writer Theola Labbé-DeBose and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.



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