This week the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) filed a brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that state and local governments may set up roadblocks to catch drug offenders.

In a brief filed in City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, WLF argued that Indianapolis did not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures when it set up roadblocks so that police officers could check motorists’ licenses and registrations, look for signs of impairment, and walk a “narcotics detection” dog around the outside of the stopped vehicle.

“The Constitution prohibits only unreasonable searches and seizures, and a carefully limited roadblock to identify drug offenders is not unreasonable,” said WLF Senior Counsel for Litigation Affairs R. Shawn Gunnarson after the brief was filed. “State and local law enforcement officials should be free to use such roadblocks as a tool for enforcing drug laws.”

This case arose when two motorists who had been stopped by the Indianapolis Police Department filed a class action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Indiana challenging the city’s policy of setting up roadblocks to identify drug offenders. The motorists argued that such roadblocks violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures “by using roadblocks to seize motorists without individualized suspicion for the primary purpose of determining if they possess or are under the influence of illegal drugs.” The district court upheld the search. However, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the roadblocks were unconstitutional because their main purpose was to catch drug offenders. The majority arrived at this startling conclusion on the ground that a roadblock conducted for the purpose of criminal law enforcement was more difficult to justify than roadblocks aimed at assuring public safety. Because the city had no probable cause to stop any particular driver, the court found that a roadblock set up mainly to find and detain drug offenders could not satisfy the constitutional test for reasonableness.

In a brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court, WLF raised four points. First, WLF argued that the reasonableness of a roadblock should be tested by evaluating the program as a whole, not each individual stop. Second, WLF pointed out that the Seventh Circuit’s distinction between roadblocks conducted for law enforcement purposes and those conducted for regulatory or public safety purposes had no basis in the Supreme Court’s own case law. Third, WLF asserted that, even if such a distinction had legal importance, the roadblocks at issue in this case serve both public safety and law enforcement purposes. Fourth, WLF argued that neither the history nor text of the Fourth Amendment requires the government to justify a search and seizure conducted for law enforcement purposes according to a higher standard than a search and seizure conducted for regulatory or public safety purposes. For these reasons, WLF asked the Supreme Court to reverse the Seventh Circuit and hold that the roadblocks conducted by the City of Indianapolis were entirely legal.

The Washington Legal Foundation is a public interest law and policy center with supporters in all 50 states. It devotes a significant portion of its resources to defending and promoting the principles of free enterprise and individual rights. WLF filed its brief on behalf of itself and the Allied Educational Foundation.

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For further information, contact WLF Senior Counsel for Litigation Affairs, R. Shawn Gunnarson, at (202) 588-0302.