Is the 4th Amendment Dead?

Indianapolis v. Edmond, No. 99-1030 (decided Nov. 28, 2000)

U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court

Drug Roadblocks: Are they unreasonable searches and seizures?
The Supreme Court previously has upheld roadblocks to check for the presence of illegal aliens (United States v. Martinez-Fuerte [1976]) and to check for signs of impaired driving (Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz [1990]).  In Indianapolis v. Edmond, the Court was asked to look at the use of police roadblocks for the purpose of interdicting drugs.

The Case The case arose when the city of Indianapolis, Indiana, began setting up roadblocks on the highways to stop a predetermined number of vehicles. The officers at these roadblocks would ask for a driver’s license and registration and then explain to the driver that he or she had been stopped at a drug checkpoint. The police looked for signs of driver impairment and then visually inspected the outside of the vehicle.

What made these roadblocks different from others that the Supreme Court has looked at in the past is that the city’s (written) roadblock policy also emphasized that “a drug detection dog will walk around and examine every vehicle stopped at the checkpoint.” If a dog “alerted,” the police would then have sufficient probable cause to search the vehicle.

Some drivers in the Indianapolis area asked the courts to stop these roadblocks.

U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court

The Decision The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the drivers and against the city of Indianapolis.

“Because the primary purpose of the Indianapolis checkpoint program is ultimately indistinguishable from the general interest in crime control, the checkpoints violate the Fourth Amendment” protection against unreasonable searches, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, dissented. The drug roadblocks only involved a “minimal intrusion on the privacy” of the occupants of the vehicles, Rehnquist said.

One of the most intriguing opinions, however, was written by Justice Thomas, who wrote separately to say that although he agreed with the chief justice that the roadblocks had to be upheld under the Court’s precedents, he would be willing to consider overruling those precedents. Taken together, Justice Thomas said: “[O]ur decisions in Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U. S. 444 (1990), and United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U. S. 543 (1976), stand for the proposition that suspicionless roadblock seizures are constitutionally permissible if conducted according to a plan that limits the discretion of the officers conducting the stops. I am not convinced that Sitz and Martinez-Fuerte were correctly decided. Indeed, I rather doubt that the Framers of the Fourth Amendment would have considered ‘reasonable’ a program of indiscriminate stops of individuals not suspected of wrongdoing.

U.S. Supreme Court
Marble Justice

“Respondents did not, however, advocate the overruling of Sitz and Martinez-Fuerte, and I am reluctant to consider such a step without the benefit of briefing and argument. For the reasons given by The Chief Justice, I believe that those cases compel upholding the program at issue here. I, therefore, join his opinion.”

As the Seventh Circuit before it, the Supreme Court in this case reasoned that even though some roadblocks had been allowed in previous cases, the drug roadblocks in this case violated the Fourth Amendment.

The Court said that it agreed with the Seventh Circuit that whether a particular roadblock policy is constitutional depends on the “primary purpose” of the checkpoint program. It said that if the program’s primary purpose is to detect evidence of “ordinary criminal wrongdoing,” the Court will strike it down as unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment rule that a search or seizure is generally unreasonable absent individualized suspicion of wrongdoing.

Read the Seventh Circuit’s opinion .

Read the transcript of the oral arguments in which the City of Indianapolis urged the Supreme Court to overturn the Seventh Circuit’s opinion.

Read the City’s losing brief containing its written arguments.

Read the motorists’ winning brief containing their written arguments.

Read the Supreme Court’s 6-3 opinion affirming the Seventh Circuit.

If the Indianapolis roadblocks were unconstitutional because they were designed primarily to uncover general criminal activity, why were the roadblocks that the Court upheld in previous cases treated differently? The Court explained that each of those roadblocks was permissible because they had a different purpose:


It said the roadblocks in United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976), were different because they had an “antismuggling purpose.” Read the Court’s 1976 opinion in Martinez-Fuerte.

It said the DUI roadblocks in Michigan v. Sitz 496 U.S. 444 (1990), were different because they were primarily concerned with “highway safety.” Read the Court’s 1990 opinion in Sitz.

Finally, it suggested that roadblocks also might be permissible if their primary purpose was to verify drivers’ licenses and registrations, because then they, too, could be viewed as being primarily concerned with highway safety. Read the Court’s 1979 opinion in Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979).

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Ex law school student. I was kicked out for revealing I had a heart actually beating inside. I used to be in a modern dance company. I'm working on my 7 miracles to be proclaimed a saint by the pope. #1 is really hard, but once i get over that hump the other 6 will be a cinch.

2 thoughts on “Is the 4th Amendment Dead?”

  1. Fishing trips are legal after all, and what is the Bill of Rights anymore? The Supreme Court virtually always ducks the real issue. Whether that be ex post facto law, or applying generalization when in fact it is an individual rights situation.

    The Constitution and Bill of Rights were not at all about Utilitarianism being the guiding light of liberty and justice. Indeed, quite the contrary.

  2. You are absolutely correct. I wrote a blog about individualism vs collectivism. Individualism is what the bill of rights was all about. Collectivism is what the states have tried to steadily enforce to get mass appeal for laws that completely trounce on your constitutional rights.

    Now, the supreme court has time and again tried to state the constitution. But, the very first supreme court case set the precedent that, the court can not make broad decisions. Therefore they limit themselves to speaking on very specific topics.

    Notice however, that they are the only governmental arm that limits itself.

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