The Supreme Court, in a case watched anxiously by law enforcement agencies across America, held Tuesday that police may set up roadblocks to collect tips about unsolved crimes.
In a 6-3 decision, the justices found roadblocks seeking such information do not violate the privacy rights of motorists.
The court overturned a decision by the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled that officers may solicit information from motorists only in an emergency. The case involved a man arrested for drunken driving at a Lombard, Ill., checkpoint set up to get information about an unrelated fatal hit-and-run accident.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the majority opinion, said that short stops, "a very few minutes at most," are not too intrusive on motorists. Police may hand out a flyer, or ask drivers to volunteer information about crimes, he said.
Lombard Police Deputy Chief Dane Cuny said the court's ruling was vindication for the department and "a victory for law enforcement and the public."
Three justices expressed concerns the ruling could open up motorists to police interference without yielding useful information about crimes.
"There is a valid and important distinction" between seizing a person to determine whether he or she has committed a crime and seizing a person to ask whether that person "has any information about an unknown person who committed a crime a week earlier," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The case was a follow-up to a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that roadblocks intended for drug searches are an unreasonable invasion of privacy under the Constitution.
Breyer said that in this case, authorities were investigating a specific crime, and one that resulted in a death. He said the ruling likely will not lead to widespread roadblocks in towns around the country because of limited police funding and community hostility to traffic delays.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said the ruling "will allow law enforcement in Illinois and across the nation to seek voluntary assistance from citizens in their efforts to solve crime."
The Illinois checkpoints had been challenged by Robert Lidster, who was arrested for drunken driving. The roadblock had been set up at the same spot and time of day that the hit-and-run took place, in hopes of getting tips. Authorities said that Lidster nearly hit an officer at the scene with his minivan.
Justices were told during the November argument in the case that the roadblocks are used in all sorts of investigations, like an effort in Utah to try to produce leads after Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped in 2002.
In the partial dissent, Stevens said motorists will be trapped by the checkpoints.
"In contrast to pedestrians, who are free to keep walking when they encounter police officers handing out flyers or seeking information, motorists who confront a roadblock are required to stop, and to remain stopped for as long as the officers choose to detain them," he wrote.
The delays "may seem relatively innocuous to some, but annoying to others ... still other drivers may find an unpublicized roadblock at midnight on a Saturday somewhat alarming."
The three dissenting justices said the case should have been sent back to Illinois courts for more consideration.
The case is Illinois v. Lidster, 02-1060.
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