Scott M. Kuboff, Esq.
Northeast Ohio Trial Attorney

Understanding Your Rights

Blog

UYR: Your Rights at Checkpoints

A lot of attention has been directed towards the Mayfield Heights Police Department (MHPD) for the fake drug checkpoint they created a few weeks ago. To catch you up to speed, the MHPD placed signs on I-271 which read "Drug Checkpoint Ahead." However, there was no checkpoint as it would most likely be unconstitutional. Instead, the signs were placed as a ruse to stop drivers who took evasive actions such driving over the grassy median or at emergency vehicle crossings, both of which are traffic violations giving rise to probable cause to stop the vehicle. 

In response to what is justified criticism, MHPD claimed that it's fake checkpoint is legal because, in fact, there was no checkpoint and the stops of vehicles were justified based upon actual traffic violations. While this arguably passes legal muster, it still is a cheap tactic that unnecessarily placed motorists in danger. 

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has found that stops of motor vehicles are "seizures" under the Fourth Amendment. Generally, in order to be a reasonable and justified seizure, the police must be able to point to specific facts which led them to believe that: (1) the motorist is unlicensed, (2) the automobile is not registered, or (3) either the vehicle or an occupant is subject to seizure for violation of the law. Obviously, stopping a random vehicle at a checkpoint does not fit any of those criteria. However, SCOTUS has found that in order for a checkpoint seizure to satisfy the constitutional requirements of the Fourth Amendment, it too must be reasonable under the circumstances. To this end, SCOTUS defined a balancing test that weights the "gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure, the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest, and the severity of the interference with individual liberty." Applying this balancing test, SCOTUS has upheld the constitutionality of checkpoints set up to (1) detect drunken drivers and (2) illegal immigrants.  Drug checkpoints, however, are not constitutional.   

MHPD claims their "fake checkpoint" was legal because there was, in fact, no checkpoint.   Had there been an actual checkpoint for the specific purpose of finding illegal narcotics, I would anticipate that the courts would have found such action unconstitutional and a violation of the individuals Fourth Amendment right to be free from arbitrary government intrusion.