EPD: Court ruling won’t change checkpoint policy

Scott Gordon

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that police can stop and question drivers to investigate crimes, but Evanston police said they aren’t so interested in using the tactic.

The Supreme Court on Jan. 13 ruled 6-3 in Illinois v. Lidster that police in Lombard, Ill., did not violate the Fourth Amendment when operating an “informational checkpoint” in 1997 to investigate a hit-and-run death. Evanston police sources said their departments have never used this method and don’t have any plans to in the future.

Chief Frank Kaminski of Evanston Police Department said that though EPD uses stops to enforce traffic laws, they aren’t the most effective way to get information.

“I’d rather have my officers walking around talking to people in the area,” Kaminski said.

Even police in Lombard, about 30 miles southwest of Evanston, said they’d prefer to avoid using informational checkpoints. Lombard police chief Ray Byrne said he thinks Illinois v. Lidster is a “huge case” but that the checkpoints are not efficient in investigating all crimes.

The checkpoint involved in Lidster was potentially useful, Byrne said, because it was set up near the scene exactly a week after the incident.

Officers had stopped randomly selected cars and had been speaking with drivers for an average of 10 to 15 seconds each on Aug. 30, 1997, when Robert Lidster approached the checkpoint. He was arrested and subsequently convicted on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Lidster appealed the conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, claiming the checkpoint was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights to privacy. The Court ruled that the Lombard checkpoint served a public need that outweighed the potential loss of drivers’ freedom.

Justice Stephen Breyer, in the majority opinion, wrote that “the Fourth Amendment does not treat a motorist’s car as his castle.”

Donald Ramsell, the Wheaton, Ill., defense attorney who argued Lidster’s case before the Supreme Court, said Breyer’s words were “really oversimplifying it.”

“When I’m in my car, I understand that the way I operate my car can be regulated,” Ramsell said. “But I didn’t sign a driver’s license that waived my Fourth Amendment rights.”

Ramsell fears the ruling will give police departments excessive latitude in conducting investigations.

“Yes, you could possibly solve every crime if you seized everyone and questioned everyone,” he said. “But those possibilities have never justified suspicionless seizures before this.”

Under the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, Ramsell said, police would be within their rights to search every dorm room and question every student at Northwestern based on the knowledge that there is drug use and drug dealing on campus.

But Mark Iris, political science lecturer at NU and executive director of the Chicago Police Board, said he did not feel the decision would threaten drivers’ rights.

“If you think about the context in which it arose, it’s not a big deal,” Iris said. “It’s a minimally intrusive incursion for a very valid public purpose.”

According to Supreme Court precedent, there are some restrictions on police use of traffic stops. In a 2000 ruling in Indianapolis v. Edmond, the Court ruled that police in Indianapolis exceeded their rights when they stopped cars at random and searched the cars for drugs.

The distinction between the two cases, Breyer wrote, was that Lombard police did not intend to arrest the occupants of the cars they were stopping but rather intended to find information that would help them arrest other individuals.