Court approves 'informational' police stop

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent  |  Jan. 13, 2004 at 2:09 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court gave a significant victory to hard-pressed police departments Tuesday, ruling that officers can set up vehicle stop checkpoints to ask the public for information.

The case began just after midnight on Aug. 23, 1997, when an unknown driver going east on a highway in Lombard, Ill., struck and killed a 70-year-old bicyclist. The motorist then sped away.

When the investigation into the killing bogged down, police decided to try a more general approach. About a week after the killing, at about the same time of night, police set up a highway checkpoint where the fatal hit-and-run occurred.

Patrol cars partially blocked the eastbound lanes of the highway, forcing cars to slow and form lines. As each driver came to the checkpoint, an officer would take 10 to 15 seconds to ask the vehicle occupants whether they knew anything about the fatal hit-and-run. The officer also gave them a pamphlet asking for assistance.

While the checkpoint was set up, Robert Lidster drove up in a minivan. The minivan swerved and almost hit one of the officers, according to court records.

The officer smelled alcohol on Lidster's breath and another officer administered a sobriety test to Lidster on a side street, before charging him with driving under the influence. He was later tried and convicted.

On appeal, Lidster challenged his arrest on the grounds that the checkpoint was unconstitutional. Eventually, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed 4-3.

The state court majority cited the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000's Indianapolis vs. Edmond. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a police checkpoint set up to allow a drug-sniffing dog the chance to examine each car in a particularly drug-infested neighborhood was unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court majority in Edmond ruled that the Fourth Amendment requires an "individualized suspicion" -- some indication that a crime has occurred involving that vehicle -- before a vehicle can be stopped and examined for drugs.

Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Illinois Supreme Court.

Speaking for a high court majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said the purpose of the Illinois checkpoint "differs significantly" from that in Edmond.

In the Illinois case, the "stop's primary law enforcement purpose was not to determine whether a vehicle's occupants were committing a crime, but to ask vehicle occupants, as members of the public, for their help in providing information about a crime in all likelihood committed by others," Breyer wrote.

The Illinois Supreme Court wrongly concluded that the Lidster case was governed by Edmond, Breyer said from the bench, "but Edmond considered the kind of stop where reasonable suspicion (that a crime had been committed) might matter ... So Edmond, we think, is beside the point."

To rule for Lidster would deprive the police of the opportunity of getting important law enforcement help from the public, Breyer added.

"We apply a rule of reason to such (informational) stops," he said. "We think the reason for the stop was reasonable and therefore constitutional."

Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented in part.

Stevens agreed with Breyer that Edmond "is not controlling in this case," but said he found the constitutional issue "closer than the court (majority) does and believe it would be wise to remand (send down) the case to the Illinois state courts to address that issue in the first instance."

Stevens said a checkpoint that stops cars is quite different from one that deals with pedestrians, "who are free to keep walking when they encounter police officers handing out flyers or seeking information."

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(No. 02-1060, Illinois vs. Lidster.)

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