(CN) – The D.C. Circuit on Friday reinstated a lawsuit challenging the District of Columbia’s use of police checkpoints to deter crime in a particularly violent neighborhood.
The checkpoints were part of a “neighborhood safety zone” program created by the Metropolitan Police Department to stem violence in the Trinidad neighborhood in northeast Washington, D.C.
After a triple homicide in May 2008, police set up 11 vehicle checkpoints in a portion of the Trinidad neighborhood deemed a safety zone.
Other checkpoints followed, as more sections of the neighborhood were deemed safety zones.
Officers stopped all cars attempting to enter the safety zones and asked drivers if they had “legitimate reasons” for entering the zones. People who lived, worked or attended school in the zones were cleared for entrance, as were those who were headed to a hospital or to a verified community or religious event.
Anyone without a “legitimate reason” was turned away, including motorists who refused to provide sufficient information. Forty-eight of 951 vehicles stopped during June checkpoints were denied entry.
Three of the rejected motorists sued, claiming the checkpoints violated their Fourth Amendment protection against unconstitutional searches and seizures.
The District of Columbia has since tweaked the program to no longer require drivers to provide identification, except to verify that they live in the safety zones.
The district court refused to put a halt to the checkpoint program, holding that the plaintiffs failed to show that they were either irreparably harmed by the checkpoints, or that they would probably win their case.
A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court reversed, saying the lower court was wrong on both accounts.
Writing for the panel, Judge Sentelle cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Indianapolis v. Edmond, in which the justices rejected police checkpoints meant to curb drug smuggling.
“The Court recognized that it had in the past upheld the constitutionality of a checkpoint stop for border protection, and a ‘sobriety checkpoint aimed at removing drunk drivers from the road,'” Sentelle wrote. “But the Court stressed that ‘[w]e have never approved a checkpoint program whose primary purpose was to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.'”
The high court then rejected the Indianapolis checkpoint program, saying its purpose “is ultimately indistinguishable from the general interest in crime control.”
“It is this rule which governs the present case,” the D.C. Circuit wrote, adding that the plaintiffs’ constitutional argument “appears headed for ultimate victory.”