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January 13, 2004
Court Upholds Roadblock Use to Seek Witnesses

ASHINGTON, Jan. 13 - The Supreme Court ruled today, in an Illinois case of deep concern to law enforcement agencies across the country, that the police may set up roadblocks to look for witnesses to crimes.

The 6-to-3 decision upheld the use of "informational checkpoints," declaring that they were not necessarily violations of the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

The majority, in an opinion written by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, made clear that they were not granting blanket approval to a whole new range of searches, even though an introductory comment noted that, unlike the respect accorded to a person's home, "the Fourth Amendment does not treat a motorist's car as his castle."

The opinion said rather that, when gauging whether a police stop was proper, "we must judge its reasonableness, hence, its constitutionality, on the basis of the individual circumstances."

In the case decided today, Illinois v. Lidster, No. 02-1060, the police in the Chicago suburb of Lombard were looking for a hit-and-run motorist who fatally struck a 70-year-old bicyclist the night of Aug. 23, 1997. A week later, at the same location and late hour, the police blocked the road to hand each motorist a flier describing the incident and asking for information.

One approaching driver, Robert S. Lidster, nearly hit an officer with his car, leading to a sobriety test and a drunken-driving conviction. Mr. Lidster challenged the constitutionality of the roadblock. The trial court rejected his challenge, but a state appellate court agreed with him.

In 2002, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled, 4 to 3, that the roadblock was unconstitutional, and it set aside Mr. Lister's conviction. The state appealed that ruling, and the Justice Department entered the case on the state's behalf.

Defense lawyers based much of their argument on a case decided by the Supreme Court in 2000 involving a roadblock set up to look for narcotics. In that case, City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, the justices said such roadblocks were unconstitutional in the absence of suspicion directed toward individuals, and in the absence of special circumstances.

"The checkpoint stop here differs significantly from that in Edmond," the majority said today. "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. The police expected the information elicited to help them apprehend, not the vehicle's occupants, but other individuals."

Roadblocks like the one that was Mr. Lidster's undoing are normally neither lengthy, intrusive or intimidating, the majority said today. Joining Justice Breyer were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented on some issues. But the dissent, written by Justice Stevens, was not an indignant repudiation of the majority's stance. Rather, the dissenters said some of the issues at hand would have been better resolved by the Illinois courts.

When the case was argued before the Supreme Court on Nov. 5, Justice Breyer said, "This is not much of a demand, to stop for 10 seconds to find someone who killed someone . . . Why is that unreasonable?"

Lombard Police Deputy Chief Dane Cuny said today, in an interview with The Associated Press, that the court's ruling was vindication for the department and "a victory for law enforcement and the public."

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan told The A.P. the ruling "will allow law enforcement in Illinois and across the nation to seek voluntary assistance from citizens in their efforts to solve crime."

In fact, while the roadblock in the Lidster case did not turn up a witness, local television coverage of the checkpoint prompted a viewer to call the police and identify a suspect.

full case at:
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