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A major checkpoint established in Peoria AZ last week has angered motorists and civil rights leaders. They contend that the checkpoint, which followed on the heels of President Obama’s address in Las Vegas on immigration, was racially motivated. Numerous drivers returning from seeing the address were apparently caught in the web. Officials deny the charge, adding that the operation was planned in December, and had nothing to do with the President’s speech.

The issue of the validity (that is, the constitutionality) of police checkpoints has been addressed by the courts for decades. Certain standards have been established to prevent the use of this tool as a weapon for unlawful discrimination. The United States Supreme Court has held that police checkpoints that target drivers, for example, who are under the influence of drugs and alcohol, are not per se invalid under the Fourth Amendment so long as a few simple rules are followed. While these rules are somewhat flexible, they consist generally of a plan set up on the administrative level for the checkpoint, including a “facially neutral” formula for determining who will be stopped.

In the Peoria checkpoint, there seems to have been some confusion, at best, about who was to be stopped, and the purpose of the checkpoint itself. Indeed, there is still some question about which agency initiated the operations. One article reports that the ADOT claims that it was initiated by the Peoria PD; a Peoria PD spokesperson, on the other hand, says it was the ADOT that was responsible. Initial indications were that it was a stop geared to checking the registration of commercial vehicles. This apparently doesn’t pass muster, since passenger cars were also being checked. The explanation for the car stops was that since registration compliance is part of the ADOT mission, passenger vehicles were also “occasionally” stopped.

What emerges from the reports is that this was a checkpoint without a clearly defined mission. In addition, the common theme of the stops was the nature of the questioning of the drivers once they were pulled over. The reaction of some is that it was an immigration check!

The upshot of all this is that checkpoints can be used for racial profiling. If you have been arrested for DUI or any other charge which began with a traffic stop, remember that illegal police behavior can lead to the exclusion of some or all of the evidence against you.

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