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Child safety as a pretext for suspicionless dragnet roadblock operations

Written by Subject: Police State

A little over a year ago, I was contacted by Matt Ragan of Boulder City, Nevada regarding a suspicionless checkpoint regime being operated in the city by local police. Matt was concerned about the civil rights implications of the roadblocks along with their general intrusiveness on the traveling public. Publicly, the police claimed the purpose of the bi-annual checkpoint was to educate parents regarding the proper installation of child safety seats. A little digging by Matt however revealed a slightly different story

During one of our exchanges, I noted that when the U.S. Supreme Court first began carving out 4th amendment loopholes for suspicionless 'public safety' checkpoints, they indicated such checkpoints must be premised on written department level guidelines clearly delineating the scope of checkpoint operations while limiting the discretion of on-scene officers. The rationale behind this being there had to be a legitimate and compelling immediate public safety issue associated with a suspicionless checkpoint in order to justify a violation of the 4th amendment's prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

In 1990, the Supreme Court rationalized this for sobriety checkpoints because of the immediate threat impaired drivers posed to the traveling public. A decade later however, the Supreme Court was forced to define the other end of the spectrum by prohibiting suspicionless checkpoints whose primary purpose was indistinguishable from general crime control. This was necessary because enforcement agencies across the country were attempting to justify increasingly intrusive checkpoints under the guise of 'public safety'.

While looking for written checkpoint guidelines from the police department, Matt discovered the department had never bothered to write guidelines even though they had been conducting checkpoints since 2001. This of course meant the checkpoints were being conducted illegally. As you would suspect however, no one in the police department was ever held accountable for those illegal acts.

After the lack of checkpoint guidelines became publicly known, the city temporarily halted checkpoint operations for close to a year while guidelines were developed. Unfortunately, the guidelines finally implemented earlier this year, fail to limit the scope of checkpoint operations and still allow broad discretion for on-scene officers.

In fact, even though police publicly claim the purpose of their checkpoint program is to assure the safe installation of child safety seats, the guidelines paint a much broader picture. According to the guidelines, the checkpoints are actually designed to:

  • Thwart imminent terrorist attacks even though the police cannot point to any evidence regarding an imminent terrorist attack
  • Apprehend fleeing fugitives even though the police can't point to any known fugitive fleeing the area during checkpoint operations
  • Papers please ID/documentation checks even though this has nothing to do with immediate issues of public safety
  • Child safety seat inspections even though an inspection constitutes a search
  • Sobriety checks

In other words, the Boulder City Police Department is playing on public anxiety regarding a host of issues to justify indiscriminate violations of the public's right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

If this wasn't bad enough, Matt has also discovered that police officers conducting the roadblocks aren't even following their newly written guidelines and are violating city ordinances in the process. Video of Matt's encounter with a checkpoint at both the North and South entry points along with an explanatory letter to city officials were made highlighting this particular malfeasance.

Matt also notes the police were going well beyond merely stopping vehicles and asking questions to forcing drivers to agree to allow police to physically enter their vehicles to conduct child safety seat inspections. This of course constitutes a search under the 4th amendment - something even the U.S. Supreme Court has never authorized at a checkpoint absent probable cause. When Matt pointed this out to the city attorney, the city attorney purportedly responded by asking how was a police officer supposed to get probable cause if they couldn't enter the vehicle to conduct an inspection?

The bottom line is that these so-called 'Public Safety' checkpoints taking place in Boulder City are representative of what's taking place in communities across America. Law enforcement is becoming increasingly hostile to individual rights and government is becoming increasingly authoritarian and dictatorial. In the process, our right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures are being violated at every turn.

Without more folks like Matt Ragan who are willing to put themselves in harm's way to draw attention to these abuses and hold local, state, and federal government agencies accountable for their trespasses, this trend will only continue.

A documented writeup of this checkpoint program can be found online here.