US Supreme Court Briefs

No. 99-1030

In the Supreme Court of the United States






Solicitor General
Counsel of Record
Assistant Attorney General
Deputy Solicitor General
Assistant to the Solicitor
Department of Justice
Washington, D. C. 20530-0001
(202) 514-2217


Whether checkpoints at which law enforcement officers briefly stop vehiculartraffic, check motorists' licenses and vehicle registrations, look for signsof impairment, and walk a "narcotics detection" dog around theexterior of each stopped automobile violate the Fourth Amendment.

In the Supreme Court of the United States

No. 99-1030





This case involves the validity under the Fourth Amendment of a vehiclecheckpoint that serves interests in drug detection, license and registrationchecks, and driver sobriety. The United States maintains vehicle checkpointsfor a variety of purposes. Because "the smuggling of aliens and drugsare intermingled by criminal organizations operating at an internationallevel," Border Patrol officers are cross-designated to search for andseize illegal narcotics in their checkpoint operations.1 Border Patrol caninesare trained to detect both concealed humans and drugs. In addition, theForest Service sometimes operates multi-purpose checkpoints on roads withinthe National Forest System, which can include verification of drivers' licensesand registration, assessments of impairment, and the conduct of canine sniffsof cars' exteriors. Forest Service Handbook 5309.11, Sec. 360 (Sept. 1998).Furthermore, because motor vehicle transportation plays a critical rolein the nationwide distribution of illegal narcotics, the Drug EnforcementAdministration, the Department of Transportation's Drug Interdiction AssistanceProgram, and other federal components have a substantial interest in effortsto curb drug trafficking on the public roadways.


1. From August to November 1998, the Indianapolis Police Department operatedsix motor vehicle "drug checkpoints" on public roads. Pet. App.51a-52a. At those checkpoints, police officers stopped a predetermined numberof cars, checked each driver's license and registration, looked for signsof impairment, and, while examining each driver's documentation, walkeda narcotics-detection dog around the car. Id. at 2a, 25a, 53a. Stops averagedtwo to three minutes; officers endeavored to ensure that, absent individualizedsuspicion, no vehicle was delayed more than five minutes. Id. at 38a, 51a.

Police officers conducted the checkpoints in accordance with detailed, writtenprocedures promulgated by the Indianapolis Police Department. Pet. App.26a-27a. The time and place of each checkpoint was set by supervisory personnelweeks in advance "based on geographical suitability, taking into considerationarea crime statistics and the ability to locate the checkpoint in a locationwhich [would] minimize the interference with normal traffic flow."Id. at 56a-57a. The date of each checkpoint (but not its exact location)was then disseminated to the public. Id. at 37a. Motorists approaching thecheckpoint were forewarned by lighted signs stating: "NARCOTICS CHECKPOINT__ MILE AHEAD, NARCOTICS K-9 IN USE, BE PREPARED TO STOP." Id. at 57a.The checkpoint itself was identified by marked police cruisers with flashinglights. The stopped cars were met by a team of police officers, at leastone of whom was in full uniform. Ibid. The governing procedures requiredthat "no discretion [be] given to any officer to stop any vehicle outof sequence," and that "every vehicle * * * stopped must be examinedin the same manner [with] no exceptions." Id. at 27a, 54a.

The "primary goal" of the checkpoints was to detect narcoticstraffickers and thus "to interrupt the flow of illegal narcotics throughoutIndianapolis." Pet. App. 25a. "[A] secondary purpose of the checkpoints[was] to check driver's licenses and vehicle registrations." Id. at44a. Police stopped a total of 1,161 vehicles, resulting in 109 arrestsand thus an effectiveness rate of 9.4%. Id. at 2a-3a, 13a, 55a. Those arrestswere divided almost equally between traffic and drug offenses. Id. at 55a.

2. In October 1998, respondents, two motorists who had been stopped at checkpoints,filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 seeking damages and an injunction on theground that the checkpoints violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.Complaint 1, 8. The district court certified the case as a class action,Pet. App. 29a-30a, but denied a preliminary injunction because it foundno likelihood of success on the merits of respondents' Fourth Amendmentclaim, id. at 32a-47a. Proceeding on a stipulated factual record, the districtcourt found that motorists suffered "minimal" subjective and objectiveintrusion at the checkpoints, id. at 37a-40a, while the stops effectivelyadvanced important governmental interests in the interdiction of narcoticsand the enforcement of licensing requirements, id. at 41a-45a.

3. A divided court of appeals reversed, holding that the checkpoints violatedthe Fourth Amendment. Pet. App. 1a-23a.

a. The majority acknowledged that the checkpoint stops, if evaluated atthe programmatic level, "probably are legal, given the high 'hit' rateand the only modestly intrusive character of the stops," Pet. App.3a, and given that they "advance[] the strong national, state, andlocal policy of discouraging the illegal use of controlled substances,"id. at 4a. The majority held, however, that, in view of "the purposeof the roadblocks * * * to catch drug offenders," id. at 11a, the stopof each car must be based on individualized suspicion because the checkpoints"related to general criminal law enforcement, rather than to primarilycivil regulatory programs for the protection of health, safety, and theintegrity of our borders." Id. at 4a (citation omitted).

The majority distinguished the Border Patrol checkpoints upheld in UnitedStates v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976), on the ground that Indianapolis"makes no attempt to defend its roadblocks on the basis that it istrying to exclude a harmful substance or dangerous persons[,] [t]hough thatmay be the ultimate aim." Pet. App. 10a. And it distinguished the sobrietycheckpoints upheld in Michigan Dep't of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444(1990), because those checkpoints "are designed to protect other usersof the road from the dangers posed by drunk drivers," rather than "primarily[to] catch[] crooks." Pet. App. 8a.

The majority recognized four exceptions to its holding that the Fourth Amendmentprohibits vehicle checkpoints aimed at law enforcement: checkpoints "setup to catch a fleeing criminal"; checkpoints set up when "it [is]impossible to prevent a crime without an indiscriminate search"; checkpoints"the objective of which is to protect a specific activity"; andcheckpoints to prevent "illegal importation whether of persons * ** or of goods." Pet. App. 12a. The court suggested, moreover, thatif the "primary purpose" of the checkpoints were to discover violationsof the traffic laws or drunk drivers, the addition of a narcotics-detectiondog might be permissible. Id. at 10a-11a.

b. Judge Easterbrook dissented. He criticized the majority's conclusionthat a "law enforcement" purpose would render a vehicle checkpointunreasonable, noting that "Martinez-Fuerte approved a roadblock tosearch for alien smuggling, a violation of a criminal law; Sitz approveda roadblock to search for drunk driving, a violation of a criminal law."Pet. App. 13a. The dissent also disagreed that the primary purpose of acheckpoint determines its constitutionality, noting that, under the majority'sview, "if Indianapolis set out to find people driving without licensesand only later added a dog to sniff for drugs * * *, then the program wouldpass constitutional muster. But if the City first decides to search fordrugs, then adds license checks * * * the program is invalid." 13a-14a. Similarly, "[i]f a program is designed primarily to searchfor people using drugs in the car, and only secondarily to locate drugsin the trunk, then it is valid; if it is designed primarily to search forcarried drugs, and only secondarily for ingested drugs, then it is invalid."Id. at 14a. In the dissent's view, "the reasonableness inquiry underthe fourth amendment is objective; it depends on what the police do, noton what they want or think." Ibid.


1. Indianapolis's checkpoint program is consistent with the Fourth Amendmentbecause the important public interests that are effectively served by thecheckpoints outweigh the minimal intrusion imposed on motorists using thepublic highways. The City's checkpoints serve not one, but two vital publicinterests: the interdiction of narcotics trafficking and the enforcementof license-and-registration requirements for motorists. Drug traffickingon the public roadways has proven to be as formidable and intractable alaw-enforcement problem as illegal immigration, which this Court has heldjustifies a comparable Border Patrol checkpoint program. Drug trafficking'sattendant social costs-in lost lives, violence, crime, and general publicdisorder-parallel, if not exceed, those public-welfare concerns that sustainsobriety checkpoints. Moreover, because public roadways are the primarydistribution network for illegal narcotics within the country, drug traffickers,like alien smugglers, depend upon automobile travel for their success.

This Court's cases also have repeatedly indicated that the Fourth Amendmentpermits license-and-registration checkpoints. Such checkpoints advance importantpublic-safety concerns by ensuring that usage of the roadways is limitedto those motorists and automobiles that satisfy the State's licensing criteria.

Further, nothing in the actual execution of the checkpoint process or inthe driver's individual experience at the checkpoint exceeds what this Courthas previously sanctioned under the Fourth Amendment. The only factual differenceis the addition of a canine sniff of the car's exterior, but, because thesniff neither entails a search nor lengthens the seizure, that distinctionis of no constitutional moment.

2. The court of appeals invalidated the checkpoints because they servedthe needs of criminal law enforcement, rather than distinct public policyneeds. But so do the immigration and sobriety checkpoints that this Courthas previously upheld. See Michigan Dep't of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S.444 (1990); United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976). Indeed,this Court has expressly rejected the imposition of a "special needs"requirement on automobile checkpoints. Sitz, 496 U.S. at 450.

The court of appeals also held that the primary purpose of the checkpointprogram's designers was critical to its legality. But the entire scope ofthe seizure was a permissible means of implementing the checkpoints' secondarypurpose-license and registration verification. The fact that the checkpointprogram simultaneously advances another weighty public interest- narcoticsdetection-without entailing any additional intrusion upon motorists' libertyand privacy should enhance, not detract from, the checkpoint's legitimacy.In any event, the constitutionality of identically operated checkpointsshould not turn upon post-hoc judicial rankings of the competing publicpurposes subjectively animating government officials. The Fourth Amendment'score function is to regulate what the police do in their interactions withindividuals, not what they think.



A. The Fourth Amendment Permits Vehicle Checkpoints Where The GovernmentInterests Served Justify The Intrusion

The "essential purpose" of the Fourth Amendment is "to imposea standard of 'reasonableness' upon the exercise of discretion by governmentofficials." Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653-654 (1979). The validityof a particular practice under the Fourth Amendment generally turns on balancingthe governmental interests promoted by the practice against its intrusionon Fourth Amendment interests. See, e.g., id. at 654; Vernonia School District47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, 652-653 (1995).

Two principles frame the inquiry into the validity of Indianapolis's vehiclecheckpoints. First, the Fourth Amendment does not impose an "irreduciblerequirement" of individualized suspicion. Acton, 515 U.S. at 653; NewJersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 340 (1985). Rather, the "touchstone"of the constitutional inquiry is "the reasonableness in all the circumstances"of the practice at issue. Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, 411 (1997) (internalquotation marks omitted).

Second, what is reasonable "depends on the context." T.L.O., 469U.S. at 337. This Court has traditionally drawn a distinction between automobilesand homes or offices in relation to the Fourth Amendment," such that"warrantless examinations of automobiles have been upheld in circumstancesin which a search of a home or office would not." South Dakota v. Opperman,428 U.S. 364, 367 (1976); see also United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428U.S. 543, 561 (1976) ("[O]ne's expectation of privacy in an automobileand of freedom in its operation are significantly different from the traditionalexpectation of privacy and freedom in one's residence."). "Thefact that automobiles occupy a special category in Fourth Amendment caselaw is by now beyond doubt." Marshall v. Barlow's, Inc., 436 U.S. 307,315 n.10 (1978). That distinction arises, in part, because of the "obviouslypublic nature of automobile travel," under which cars routinely "travel[]public thoroughfares where both [their] occupants and [their] contents arein plain view." Opperman, 428 U.S. at 367-368; see also Cardwell v.Lewis, 417 U.S. 583, 590 (1974). In addition, automobiles, unlike homesor offices, are subject to a "web of pervasive regulation." NewYork v. Class, 475 U.S. 106, 112 (1986).

As an everyday occurrence, police stop and examine vehicles when licenseplates or inspection stickers have expired, or if other violations, suchas exhaust fumes or excessive noise, are noted, or if headlights or othersafety equipment are not in proper working order.

Opperman, 428 U.S. at 368.2

Consistent with the special status of automobiles in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence,this Court has twice upheld vehicle checkpoints as reasonable seizures underthe Fourth Amendment by weighing "the gravity of the public concernsserved by the seizure, the degree to which the seizure advances the publicinterest, and the severity of the interference with individual liberty."Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, 51 (1979). In United States v. Martinez-Fuerte,supra, the Court upheld the Border Patrol's use of permanent, fixed checkpointson roads leading to the interior of the country. The Court found the "lawenforcement needs served by checkpoints"-controlling the flow of illegalaliens and smuggling-to be "substantial[]," 428 U.S. at 556 &n.12, while "the consequent intrusion on Fourth Amendment interestsis quite limited," id. at 557. The checkpoints' interference with legitimatetraffic was "minimal," and the exercise of discretion by officerswas controlled by the "regularized manner in which established checkpointsare operated." Id. at 559.

In Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990), theCourt upheld sobriety checkpoints at which cars were briefly stopped anddrivers examined for signs of intoxication. Applying the "relevantauthorities" of Martinez-Fuerte and Brown v. Texas, id. at 450, theCourt noted that the "magnitude" of the State's interest in combatingthe problem of drunk driving was undisputed, id. at 451. On the other sideof the ledger, the Court found, as it did in Martinez-Fuerte, that the intrusionon motorists stopped at sobriety checkpoints was "minimal." 452. While the Court made clear that no searching examination of thesobriety checkpoints' "effectiveness" was required in order tosustain them, id. at 454, the Court concluded that the ability of the checkpointsto advance the States' interest was sufficient to strike the balance "infavor of the state program." Id. at 455.3

B. A Vehicle Checkpoint May Validly Be Established To Serve The Government'sInterests Both In Drug Detection And In Motor Vehicle Regulation

Applying this Court's analysis in Martinez-Fuerte and Sitz, the checkpointsin this case are valid under the Fourth Amendment.

1. The Interests Served By the Checkpoints Are Substantial.

a. Indianapolis's checkpoints serve the unquestionably vital public interestin reducing the flow of illegal drugs, with its enormous attendant costsin human lives, social disorder, and related criminal violence. Like theproblem of alien smuggling and immigration violations, there is a "veritablenational crisis in law enforcement caused by smuggling of illicit narcotics,"United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531, 538 (1985), and "drugsmugglers do not hesitate to use violence to protect their lucrative tradeand avoid apprehension," National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab,489 U.S. 656, 669 (1989). "[T]he public has a compelling interest indetecting those who would traffic in deadly drugs for personal profit."United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 703 (1983). The States' "interestin self-protection," Von Raab, 489 U.S. at 670, from the influx ofillegal narcotics thus is a substantial and weighty governmental concern.4

The pervasive problem of drug smuggling, like alien smuggling and otherimmigration offenses, has a close nexus to the usage of public roadways.Whether illegal drugs initially arrive in this country by boat, airplane,or foot, they at some point end up on the public roadways for national distribution.Cf. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. at 552 ("Once within the country, thealiens seek to travel inland * * * frequently meeting by prearrangementwith friends or professional smugglers who transport them in private vehicles.").5Like alien smugglers, drug traffickers are lured by the speedy distributionthat highways and interstates offer, and they are known to have preferredroutes for transporting their contraband.6 Public roadways thus representa critical link in the nationwide drug trafficking chain.

Also like illegal immigration, drug trafficking on the public roadways "posesformidable law enforcement problems." Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. at552. While law enforcement personnel can identify and stop some suspiciousvehicles, as a general proposition "the flow of traffic tends to betoo heavy to allow the particularized study of a given car that would enableit to be identified as a possible carrier of illegal [drugs]." 557. Drug traffickers, moreover, possess a "seemingly inexhaustiblerepertoire of deceptive practices and elaborate schemes," that includes"adroit selection of source locations, smuggling routes, and increasinglyelaborate methods of concealment." Von Raab, 489 U.S. at 669.7 In particular,a requirement of particularized suspicion before cars could be stopped ata checkpoint "would largely eliminate any deterrent to the conductof well-disguised smuggling operations." Martinez-Fuerte, 428 557.

b. The checkpoint program also serves the secondary purpose of verifyingdriver's licenses and registrations. Pet. App. 44a. This Court has repeatedlyindicated that checkpoints for license and registration verification arepermissible under the Fourth Amendment, because they serve the States' "vitalinterest in ensuring that only those qualified to do so are permitted tooperate motor vehicles, that these vehicles are fit for safe operation,and hence that licensing, registration, and vehicle inspection requirementsare being observed." Prouse, 440 U.S. at 658; see also id. at 663.Similarly, in Martinez-Fuerte, the Court predicated its decision upholdingcheckpoints for illegal aliens in part on the existence and historical acceptanceof license and registration stops. 428 U.S. at 560 n.14 ("Stops forquestioning, not dissimilar to those involved here, are used widely at stateand local levels to enforce laws regarding drivers' licenses, safety requirements,weight limits, and similar matters.").8

2. The Intrusion on Liberty and Privacy Is Minimal.

The overall intrusion on motorists' liberty and privacy interests at Indianapolis'scheckpoint, as in Martinez-Fuerte and Sitz, is minimal. Officers first askfor the driver's license and registration. Pet. App. 53a.9 That is a familiarand constitutional inquiry for traffic checkpoints. See p. 14, supra. Theofficers next check for signs of driver impairment, Pet. App. 53a, whichis no more intrusive here than in Sitz. The officers also walk a narcotics-detection canine around the exterior of the vehicle while the license andregistration are being checked. See Pet. 3; Pet. App. 57a. A sniff by anarcotics-detection dog of the publicly exposed exterior of personal effectsis not a search. United States v. Place, 462 U.S. at 707 (dog sniff of luggageis not a search); see also Class, 475 U.S. at 114 ("The exterior ofa car, of course, is thrust into the public eye, and thus to examine itdoes not constitute a 'search.'"). The dog makes its "observationsfrom a public vantage point where [it] has a right to be." Californiav. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207, 213 (1986); see also Pet. App. 40a. And motoristshave no reasonable expectation of privacy in odors, particularly of contrabandsubstances, emanating from their automobiles. Moreover, because the caninesniff is conducted on a car that has already been properly stopped for alicense, registration, and sobriety check, the sniff itself should not expandthe length of the detention at the checkpoint and thus does not entail anindependent seizure of the vehicle and its occupants. Absent the developmentof individualized suspicion, the average length of the delay is two to threeminutes. Id. at 38a, 57a. That is not discernibly longer than the time motoristsare required to spend stopped at a toll booth on a busy day or at a trafficlight at a busy intersection. See Fed. Highway Admin., Traffic Control DevicesHandbook 4-100 (1983). It is shorter than the average time of the BorderPatrol checkpoints upheld in Martinez-Fuerte. See 428 U.S. at 547 (threeto five minute stop). The stipulated record reveals no inordinately intrusivequestioning by officers nor visual inspection of the vehicle or passengersbeyond "what can be seen without a search." Id. at 558.

The subjective intrusion on law-abiding motorists (Sitz, 496 U.S. at 452)is also minor. The police officers' actions are regularized and their discretionis closely cabined. The checkpoint locations are selected weeks in advanceby high-level officials based on reasonable and objective criteria, suchas crime statistics, traffic volume, and operational safety. Pet. App. 56a-57a;see also Sitz, 496 U.S. at 453; Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. at 559. Cars arestopped on the basis of a predetermined, objective formula (such as everytenth car). Pet. App. 37a-38a, 54a, 57a; cf. Sitz, 496 U.S. at 453. Thesteps officers implement in the checkpoint procedure are also regimented,Pet. App. 37a-38a, 53a-54a, providing "visible evidence, reassuringto law-abiding motorists, that the stops are duly authorized and believedto serve the public interest," Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. at 559. Furthermore,the public is provided advance notice of the checkpoints' operation (butnot precise location). Pet. App. 37a. On the roadways, lighted signs warnmotorists as they approach the checkpoints. Id. at 57a; cf. Martinez-Fuerte,428 U.S. at 545-546, 559 (because of signs, motorists "are not takenby surprise"). The presence of marked police cruisers and uniformedofficers demonstrates the checkpoints' official character. Pet. App. 57a.Consequently, the "motorist can see that other vehicles are being stopped,he can see visible signs of the officers' authority, and he is much lesslikely to be frightened or annoyed by the intrusion." Martinez-Fuerte,428 U.S. at 558.

3. The Checkpoints Are Highly Effective.

Indianapolis's checkpoints are "spectacularly successful," Pet.App. 13a, with an arrest rate approaching ten percent, id. at 3a, 13a. Roughlyhalf of those arrested were charged with driving offenses and the otherhalf with drug offenses. Ibid. That effectiveness rate exceeds what thisCourt has sustained in earlier checkpoint cases. See Sitz, 496 U.S. at 455(1.6% arrest rate for drunk drivers); Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. at 554 (apprehensionrates of 17,000 illegal aliens per ten million cars and 725 deportable aliensper 146,000 vehicles).

* * *

Balancing those considerations, because Indianapolis's checkpoints servesubstantial public interests, involve no greater degree of intrusion thanthis Court has previously held is permissible for vehicle checkpoints, andhave proven to be a highly effective means of combating an intractable lawenforcement problem on the public roadways, they are valid under the FourthAmendment.

C. The Court Of Appeals Erred In Holding That The Checkpoint Program InThis Case Is Invalid Because It Serves Law Enforcement Interests

The court of appeals acknowledged that, if Indianapolis's checkpoints werereviewed under this Court's checkpoint precedents, they "probably arelegal, given the high 'hit' rate and the only modestly intrusive characterof the stops," Pet. App. 3a, and "the strong national, state,and local policy of discouraging the illegal use of controlled substances,"id. at 4a. The court held, however, that motor vehicle checkpoints mustbe justified on the basis of a "special need" other than enforcementof the criminal law. Id. at 5a. That is incorrect.

1. This Court's checkpoint cases foreclose any such requirement. In Sitz,the same claim was made that the sobriety checkpoints could be upheld onlyif predicated on "a showing of some special governmental need, beyondthe normal need, for criminal law enforcement." Sitz, 496 U.S. at 450.But this Court found it "perfectly plain" that the Court's requirementof special needs beyond routine law enforcement in drug-testing cases

was in no way designed to repudiate our prior cases dealing with policestops of motorists on public highways. Martinez-Fuerte, supra, which utilizeda balancing analysis in approving highway checkpoints for detecting illegalaliens, and Brown v. Texas, supra, are the relevant authorities here.

Ibid. Similarly, in Brown v. Texas, this Court stated that the Fourth Amendmentrequires either that seizures be based on individualized suspicion "orthat the seizure must be carried out pursuant to a plan embodying explicit,neutral limitations on the conduct of individual officers," withoutconfining the latter to special needs above and beyond general law enforcementinterests. 443 U.S. at 51 (emphasis added).10

Sitz cannot be distinguished on the premise (Pet. App. 8a-9a) that sobrietycheckpoints serve primarily a public-safety function. The record in Sitzestablished that "an arrest would be made" for any driver foundintoxicated at the checkpoint. 496 U.S. at 447. While those arrests simultaneouslyperformed the functions of enforcing the criminal law and promoting publicsafety by removing drunk drivers from the road, the checkpoints at issuehere also serve significant public-safety ends by removing drugs from theirprimary distribution network and thus averting the human and societal tollthat their trafficking and usage exacts.

Martinez-Fuerte further establishes that the social harms to be advancedby a checkpoint program are not confined to traffic safety or regulatoryends. There, the checkpoints directly enforced the criminal prohibitionson alien smuggling and illegal entry, which this Court characterized asa "significant law enforcement need[]." Martinez-Fuerte, 428 555. Indeed, each of the defendants in Martinez-Fuerte had been prosecuted.Id. at 547-550. Running through the opinion, moreover, is a recognitionof the vital role checkpoints play in addressing the "formidable lawenforcement problems" posed by illegal-alien traffic. Id. at 552, 556-557& n.12.

Nor can Martinez-Fuerte be distinguished, as the court of appeals suggested(Pet. App. 10a), on the basis that the Border Patrol's checkpoints promotedessentially the "regulatory purpose" of deporting illegal aliens.While the passenger aliens found in a stopped automobile may be administrativelydeported rather than prosecuted, the car's driver, whose Fourth Amendmentrights are directly implicated by the stop, is "routinely prosecute[d]" by the government. Martinez-Fuerte,428 U.S. at 553 n.9. Furthermore, this Court rejected precisely such anadministrative/ law enforcement distinction in Martinez-Fuerte. See 560 n.14 ("The fact that the purpose of such laws is said to beadministrative is of limited relevance in weighing their intrusiveness onone's right to travel.").

The court of appeals also suggested (Pet. App. 9a) that Martinez-Fuerteis irrelevant because the checkpoints in that case were founded upon thefederal government's unique authority over foreign relations and immigration.This Court, however, did not rest its analysis on an immigration-authorityexception to the Fourth Amendment. Nor would such a rationale have merit,given that Border Patrol checkpoints occur as far as 100 miles away fromthe border and often are situated in locations where metropolitan areasinterrupt the traffic flow from the border. In any event, apart from intrusionsat the border, see Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. at 537-538; United Statesv. Ramsey, 431 U.S. 606, 616 (1977), the Fourth Amendment imposes the sameconstraints on the federal government and the States. Thus, while immigrationcontrol furnished the particular interest in Martinez-Fuerte, States alsomay establish checkpoints to serve their own weighty interest in regulatingnarcotics smuggling on public roads.11

2. The rationale for requiring "special needs" beyond routinelaw enforcement in other contexts has no application to the checkpointsoperated in this case. The drug testing cases, for example, involve botha search and seizure of an individual, and one that implicates a uniquelypersonal activity.12 If such personal intrusions were permitted for routinecrime detection, it would do much to undermine the general principle ofFourth Amendment law that intrusions on the person require some individualizedsuspicion. By contrast, the "practice of stopping automobiles brieflyfor questioning" at a checkpoint involves only a brief seizure andno search; it "has a long history evidencing its utility"; andit "is accepted by motorists as incident to highway use." Martinez-Fuerte,428 U.S. at 561 n.14.13

D. The Checkpoint In This Case Is Valid Because It Is Objectively JustifiedBy Its Secondary Purpose To Check Driver's Licenses And Registrations

The court of appeals did not find Indianapolis's checkpoint program unconstitutionalbecause of anything the officers did in implementing the checkpoints. Instead,the court's decision turned upon its conclusion that "the purpose behindthe [checkpoint] program is critical to its legality," Pet. App. 10a(emphasis omitted), and that Indianapolis was "concern[ed] * * * primarilywith catching crooks," id. at 8a. But even were the Court to concludethat an interest in narcotics-detection is insufficient to support a checkpointprogram, the checkpoints in this case are adequately supported by theirvalid "secondary purpose" (id. at 44a) to check driver's licensesand vehicle registrations.

1. The district court found-and the court of appeals did not disagree-thatIndianapolis's checkpoints had two purposes, the primary purpose of narcoticsinterdiction and the secondary purpose of enforcing the drivers' licenseand registration laws. Pet. App. 44a. Because the constitutional validityof that secondary purpose is unquestioned and because the scope of the entireseizure was a permissible means of accomplishing that purpose, the checkpointsare valid under the Fourth Amendment regardless of their additional, narcotics-detectionpurpose. Where one of the purposes served by a vehicle checkpoint servesthe important public interests that this Court has held justify such operationsand where the checkpoint's additional purpose(s) do not alter the lengthor intrusiveness of the seizure, the existence of multiple purposes doesnot raise a Fourth Amendment problem. Cf. Horton v. California, 496 U.S.128, 138 (1990) ("The fact that an officer is interested in an itemof evidence and fully expects to find it in the course of a search shouldnot invalidate its seizure if the search is confined in area and durationby the terms of a warrant or a valid exception to the warrant requirement.");see also Merrett v. Moore, 58 F.3d 1547, 1550-1551 (11th Cir. 1995), cert.denied, 519 U.S. 812 (1996).

To illustrate, the checkpoints at issue in Sitz and Martinez-Fuerte hadsignificant law-enforcement components. Yet this Court sustained them withoutquantifying or weighing the dual law enforcement and public interest componentsof those checkpoints' purposes. In fact, in United States v. Villamonte-Marquez,462 U.S. 579 (1983), this Court held that the Customs Service's "substantial""governmental interest in assuring compliance with documentation requirements"is "particularly" enhanced, not diminished, when enforced "inwaters where the need to deter or apprehend smugglers is great." 593.

Furthermore, a constitutional rule for multi-purpose checkpoints that turnsupon which purpose is "primary" and which purpose is "secondary"is unworkable. From the vantage point of the individual who is stopped,the intrusion is identical whether a license-and-registration checkpointis supplemented with a drug-detection canine for the subsidiary purposeof narcotics control, or whether a narcotics-interdiction checkpoint servesthe subsidiary goal of checking driver's licenses, registrations, and sobriety.In either case, officers may establish checkpoints with highly regulatedprotocols that include a brief stop, a check of license and registration,and examination of the vehicle's exterior by a drug-detection dog. Thereis no apparent basis for invalidating one practice while upholding the other.Nor would there be a jurisprudentially practicable way for courts to determinewhich purposes predominated for particular checkpoints. Law enforcementagencies may establish programs without clearly labeling (or prioritizing)the purposes they serve. And the reasons for maintaining a mixed-purposecheckpoint may vary over time and as public office holders change. The resultunder the Fourth Amendment should not depend on such inquiries.14

2. a. A focus on the objective characteristics, rather than subjective purposes,of a particular checkpoint is consistent with general principles in FourthAmendment analysis. "[A]lmost without exception in evaluating allegedviolations of the Fourth Amendment the Court has first undertaken an objectiveassessment of an officer's actions in light of the facts and circumstancesthen known to him." Scott v. United States, 436 U.S. 128, 137 (1978).

[T]he fact that the officer does not have the state of mind which is hypothecatedby the reasons which provide the legal justification for the officer's actiondoes not invalidate the action taken as long as the circumstances, viewedobjectively, justify that action.

Id. at 138.15

That rule equally applies to searches and seizures involving traffic ortransportation offenses. In Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996),this Court unanimously held that a traffic stop for the commission of acivil traffic infraction is reasonable, regardless of the officers' underlyingmotivation to search the car for drugs. Id. at 813-815; see also Ohio v.Robinette, 519 U.S. 33, 38 (1996). In Brower v. County of Inyo, 489 U.S.593 (1989), this Court refused to consider the subjective intent of policeofficers in determining whether a roadblock to stop a fleeing suspect constituteda seizure. Id. at 598-599. Similarly, in United States v. Robinson, 414U.S. 218, 236 (1973), the Court held that an objectively reasonable arrestfor a traffic violation justified a search incident to arrest for weaponsand evidence, whether or not the officer had any objective or fact-specificconcern for his safety.16

There is no sufficient reason to adopt a different approach for checkpoints.The Brown v. Texas balancing test, which generally applies to checkpointstops, see Sitz, 496 U.S. at 450, weighs purely objective factors. It looksfirst at "the gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure,"Brown, 443 U.S. at 51 (emphasis added), not at what primary concerns promptedadoption of the checkpoint program. In this case, there can be no seriousdispute that, whatever the intent of the Indianapolis officials who adoptedthe checkpoint program, the checkpoints served the important public interestin ensuring that only properly licensed and sober drivers in registeredcars occupied the public roadways. Those were the first things the officerschecked for at the roadblocks, those activities alone defined the temporaland physical scope of the seizure, and those offenses accounted for nearlyhalf of the arrests made.

The second and third Brown v. Texas factors-the effectiveness of the checkpointsand the severity of the interference with individual liberty-are also quintessentiallyobjective inquiries. The former often focuses on statistical success rates.See Sitz, 496 U.S. at 455; Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. at 553-554. And theintrusiveness of the seizure from the individual's standpoint turns on whatofficers actually do, not on what supervisory officials think.17

b. The court of appeals found (Pet. App. 10a) a difference of constitutionalmagnitude between the subjective purpose of individual officers implementingthe checkpoint, the consideration of which is impermissible, and the aggregatedpurpose of those law enforcement officials who designed the checkpoint,the consideration of which it deemed controlling. But if the purpose ofthe officers actually executing the seizure is irrelevant, there is no FourthAmendment justification for making dispositive the relative weights thatthe program's originators attach to the checkpoints multiple purposes.18It would make little sense for courts to invalidate otherwise constitutionalcheckpoint seizures simply because the public officials in a particularjurisdiction listed their purposes in the "wrong" order in a pressrelease or policy memorandum.

Nor is a purpose inquiry necessary to prevent "dragnet search[es] forcriminals." Pet. App. 10a. "Scrupulous adherence" to theexisting objective limitations on checkpoint seizures will accomplish thatgoal. Horton, 496 U.S. at 140. As noted above, the justification for checkpointsis confined to stops of motor vehicles on public roadways because of theirunique Fourth Amendment status, and thus does not permit seizures of pedestriansor searches of persons or cars. There is also a practical limitation bothon what crimes have a sufficiently pervasive connection to the roadwaysto make it sensible to commit law-enforcement resources to checkpoints andwhat crimes can be policed effectively through plain view inspections orcanine sniffs in the brief detention time permitted for checkpoint seizures.Finally, "the expense to law enforcement agencies and public intoleranceof the inconvenience impose a check on unreasonable recourse to this power."4 Wayne R. LaFave, Search and Seizure § 9.6(a), at 311 (3d ed. 1996);see also id. § 10.8(d), at 693.

c. The court of appeals also erred in relying (Pet. App. 11a) on this Court'sdicta in Whren, supra, that "the exemption from the need for probablecause (and warrant), which is accorded to searches made for the purposeof inventory or administrative regulation, is not accorded to searches thatare not made for those purposes," 517 U.S. at 811-812 (emphasis omitted).Even assuming that this language applies to checkpoint stops, which arenot conducted for administrative or inventory purposes and which entaillimited seizures not searches, it does not cast doubt on the validity ofIndianapolis's checkpoints.

First, one reason to question putatively administrative or inventory searcheswhen they are made for law-enforcement purposes is that those searches ofpersons' homes and business premises, or of automobiles already entirelywithin police custody, normally would require the highest level of protectionunder the Fourth Amendment: a warrant or probable cause. Brief automobilestops, by contrast, do not typically require that level of justification,even outside the checkpoint context. See, e.g., United States v. Sharpe,470 U.S. 675 (1985) (investigatory stop of a vehicle justifiable on reasonablesuspicion); United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873 (1975) (same).And checkpoint procedures provide an objective level of regularity thatprotects against arbitrary action by law enforcement officers, without anyneed to scrutinize the official purpose. See Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. at51; Prouse, 440 U.S. at 663.

Second, and in any event, the Court has never invalidated an otherwise-justifiedadministrative or inventory search by finding that there also was an underlyinglaw-enforcement purpose. Administrative and inventory searches must be guidedby objective limitations on the police officers' behavior.19 Those limitssubstitute for the traditional probable cause requirement. Once such objectivelimitations are in place, however, and the general interests served by administrativeand inventory searches are furthered by the practice in question, the existenceof additional, important governmental purposes for a particular practiceshould not provide a basis for invalidating it under the Fourth Amendment.20


The judgment of the court of appeals should be reversed.
Respectfully submitted.

Solicitor General
Assistant Attorney General
Deputy Solicitor General
Assistant to the Solicitor

MAY 2000

1 See Memorandum of Understanding Between the Drug Enforcement Administrationand the Immigration and Naturalization Service 1, 3 (Mar. 25, 1996).

2 See also Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295, 303-305 (1999) (passengers,as well as drivers, have a reduced expectation of privacy in cars travelingon the public thoroughfares); Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940(1996) (per curiam) (noting "the individual's reduced expectation ofprivacy in an automobile, owing to its pervasive regulation").

3 Although the state courts had found sobriety checkpoints generally tobe "ineffective," see Sitz, 496 U.S. at 448-449, 453, this Courtheld that the "decision as to which among reasonable alternative lawenforcement techniques [to adopt] * * * remains with the governmental officialswho have a unique understanding of, and a responsibility for, limited publicresources, including a finite number of police officers." Id. at 453-454.

4 The court of appeals stated (Pet. App. 10a) that "Indianapolis makesno attempt to defend its roadblocks on the basis that it is trying to excludea harmful substance or dangerous persons[,] [t]hough that may be the ultimateaim, [instead] the City concedes that its proximate goal is to catch drugoffenders in the hope of incapacitating them, and deterring others, by criminalprosecution." That analysis overlooks that, by arresting narcoticstraffickers, confiscating contraband, and deterring others from engagingin similar smuggling efforts, Indianapolis's program does exclude drugsfrom the city.

5 Border Patrol agents have advised us that, especially following the Mexicanmarijuana harvest in the Fall, there are times when they discover more narcoticsthan aliens smuggled in cars going through their checkpoints. The BorderPatrol checkpoints at Las Cruces, New Mexico, reported 129 drug seizuresfrom September through December 1997, valuing approximately $8.6 million.In the first three months of this year alone, those checkpoints made 104seizures of $3.7 million worth of illegal narcotics.

6 See Pet. App. 12a ("The high hit rate of Indianapolis's roadblockscheme suggests that Indianapolis has placed the roadblocks in areas ofthe city in which drug use approaches epidemic proportions."); Statev. Damask, 936 S.W.2d 565, 573 (Mo. 1996) (drug checkpoint on a road that"is known as a popular route for the transport of narcotics" upheldbecause it was designed "to discover problems predictably associatedwith persons who traveled these thoroughfares").

7 See also United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 561-562 (1980) (Powell,J., concurring) ("Much of the drug traffic is highly organized andconducted by sophisticated criminal syndicates. * * * [M]any drugs * * *may be easily concealed. As a result, the obstacles to detection of illegalconduct may be unmatched in any other area of law enforcement."); cf.Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 519 (1983) (Blackmun, J., dissenting) ("Thespecial need for flexibility in uncovering illicit drug couriers is hardlydebatable. Surely the problem is as serious, and as intractable, as theproblem of illegal immigration.").

8 The courts of appeals and highest state courts have unanimously sustainedproperly constituted license-and-registration checkpoints. See Merrett v.Moore, 58 F.3d 1547 (11th Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 812 (1996);United States v. Morales-Zamora, 914 F.2d 200, 202-203 (10th Cir. 1990)(collecting cases); United States v. McFayden, 865 F.2d 1306 (D.C. Cir.1989); United States v. Prichard, 645 F.2d 854 (10th Cir.) (license andinsurance checkpoint), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 832 (1981); LaFontaine v.State, 497 S.E.2d 367 (Ga.), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 947 (1998); see alsoPark v. Forest Serv., 205 F.3d 1034, 1040 (8th Cir. 2000) (allegations thatcheckpoint "consisted of an identification and registration check"do not describe an unconstitutional seizure); United States v. Trevino,60 F.3d 333 (7th Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1061 (1996); cf. Statev. Rodriguez, 877 S.W.2d 106 (Mo. 1994) (commercial vehicle inspection checkpoints);but see State v. Larson, 485 N.W.2d 571 (Minn. Ct. App. 1992) (documentcheckpoint invalidated because officers had too much discretion).

9 Indiana law requires drivers to display their license and registrationupon the demand of a police officer. Ind. Code Ann. §§ 9-18-2-21(b)(2), 9-24-13-3 (Michie 1997).

10 See also Prouse, 440 U.S. at 654-655 ("In those situations in whichthe balance of interests precludes insistence upon some quantum of individualizedsuspicion, other safeguards are generally relied upon to assure that theindividual's reasonable expectation of privacy is not subject to the discretionof the official in the field.") (footnote and internal quotation marksomitted).

11 The court of appeals' contention that checkpoint stops must rest on "concernsother than crime detection," Pet. App. 5a (citation and emphasis omitted),also conflicts with the court's own view (id. at 5a-6a) that roadblocksto detect fugitives or threatened violations of criminal laws are permissible.Such roadblocks plainly advance criminal law enforcement needs. While theyalso may address particular exigencies in preventing crimes or escapes,drug seizures likewise terminate further criminal activity involving boththe smuggler and the drugs and may thereby avert the violence that pervadesdrug trafficking and drug usage.

12 See Bond v. United States, 120 S. Ct. 1462, 1464 (2000) ("Physicallyinvasive inspection is simply more intrusive than purely visual inspection.");Houghton, 526 U.S. at 303 (cases involving "the unique, significantlyheightened protection afforded against searches of one's person" donot govern searches during automobile stops); Skinner v. Railway Labor Exec.Ass'n, 489 U.S. 602, 617 (1989) ("There are few activities in our societymore personal or private than the passing of urine."); cf. United Statesv. Ortiz, 422 U.S. 891, 895 (1975) (because a traffic stop is "considerablyless intrusive than a search," suspicionless checkpoints may be appropriatefor the former but are not for the latter).

13 The court of appeals' reliance (Pet. App. 5a) on Chandler v. Miller,520 U.S. 305 (1997), was also misplaced. In Chandler, the Court stated thatan exception to the ordinary requirement of individualized suspicion fora search may exist when "'special needs'-concerns other than crimedetection-are alleged in justification of a Fourth Amendment intrusion."Id. at 314. But, as the dissenting opinion noted (Pet. App. 16a), Chandleracknowledged (520 U.S. at 308) this Court's decisions in Martinez-Fuerteand Sitz-both of which involved checkpoints that, at least in part, servedcrime detection interests. Further, in Sitz, the Court made clear that "specialneeds" analysis does not apply to vehicle checkpoints. See p. 18, supra.

14 See Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 815 (1996) ("We cannotaccept that the search and seizure protections of the Fourth Amendment areso variable * * * and can be made to turn upon such trivialities.");Massachusetts v. Painten, 389 U.S. 560, 565 (1968) (White, J., dissentingfrom dismissal of certiorari) ("[S]ending state and federal courtson an expedition into the minds of police officers would produce a graveand fruitless misallocation of judicial resources.").

15 See also Bond, 120 S. Ct. at 1465 n.2 ("[T]he subjective intentof the law enforcement officer is irrelevant in determining whether thatofficer's actions violate the Fourth Amendment * * *; the issue is not hisstate of mind, but the objective effect of his actions," even wherethe officer lacks individualized suspicion.); Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S.386, 397 (1989) ("prior cases make clear" that the "subjectivemotivations of the individual officers * * * ha[ve] no bearing on whethera particular seizure is 'unreasonable' under the Fourth Amendment").

16 See also Villamonte-Marquez, 462 U.S. at 584 n.3 (upholding a brief,suspicionless detention of a ship for a documentation check regardless ofthe agents' ulterior motive to detect illegal drugs); Horton, 496 U.S. at138-139 (observation of items in plain view need not be inadvertent).

17 The highway signs in this case warned drivers only of a "narcoticscheckpoint." But the content of the warning signs did not significantlyinfluence the nature or degree of the intrusion. Such warnings are not constitutionallycompelled. See Sitz, 496 U.S. at 447-448 (no indication that warning signswere present). And the warnings here would be unlikely to generate "fearand surprise * * * in law abiding motorists." Id. at 452.

18 See Whren, 517 U.S. at 815 (it is "somewhat easier to figure outthe intent of an individual officer than to plumb the collective consciousnessof law enforcement").

19 See New York v. Burger, 482 U.S. 691, 702-703 (1987) (administrativesearch must "further" a "'substantial' government interest"and must be "carefully limited in time, place, and scope"); Coloradov. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 372 (1987) ("standardized procedures"required for vehicle inventories); Barlow's, 436 U.S. at 323 ("neutralcriteria"); Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523, 538 (1967) ("reasonablelegislative or administrative standards" must govern administrativesearches).

20 The court of appeals further erred in relying (Pet. App. 11a) on theplurality's pretext language in Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730, 743 (1983).That language arose entirely in that portion of the opinion addressing therequirement in the law at that time that evidence in plain view be discoveredinadvertently. See Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 466 (1971).This Court dispensed with that requirement seven years later. Horton, 496U.S. at 138-142.

FindLaw Career Center

    Select a Job Title

      Post a Job  |  Careers Home

    View More