Civil Liberties

Roadblocks For Revenue Go Too Far, Says Kentucky Supreme Court


Cash or credit -- no personal checks.

Some cash-strapped towns are mere layabouts when it comes to raising revenue. They wait for people to actually generate some sort of wealth before raking off a take. But not Liberty, Kentucky. Officials there required anybody living or working in town to buy stickers and stick them on their cars. And when some teachers at local schools failed to fork over the required ten bucks, Liberty cops scooped 'em up at roadblocks. At least, they did before the Kentucky Supreme Court put an end to the lucrative fun.

As reports:

When teachers at a local school failed to pay for a sticker, town leaders had police set up a roadblock to issue them citations. Cars with a sticker were allowed to pass through the checkpoint, while drivers of stickerless vehicles were interrogated about where they lived and where they worked. Joseph A. Singleton was stopped at this checkpoint and when police searched his car they found a small amount of marijuana. Singleton moved to suppress the evidence on the grounds that police had seized him without probable cause or articulable suspicion, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Singleton intitially won his case, only to see his victory overturned on appeal. In reviewing the case (PDF), the Kentucky Supreme Court pointed out that, while the courts have signed off on an awful lot of uses of law-enforcement roadblocks, "a checkpoint set up to stop vehicles without individualized indicia of suspicion on the random chance of catching a law breaker is too great a breach in the wall of protection provided by the Fourth Amendment." And, as laws go, the court continued, enforcing a tax stamp with no relation to public safety is a pretty pissant reason to pull people over. Well, writing for the unanimous court, Justice Daniel J. Venters actually said it in polite legal-ese:

Indeed, a city ordinance would appear to be of lesser stature than a "crime" as used in Edmond, and thus rather than distinguishing Edmond, the better assessment would appear to be that Edmond would apply with even more force against a roadblock set up solely to detect violations of a city ordinance.

Venters also pointed out, if city officials really wanted to squeeze ten dollars from the non-compliant teachers, "police officers could have simply walked through the school parking lot and cited cars without a sticker."

I've written about roadblocks before. Usually, the authorities behind them claim some sort of overblown public safety rationale for stopping and interrogating people with little or no cause along the public roads. It's peculiarly refreshing, in an odd way, to see government officials drop the crime-fighting schtick and engage in overt highway robbery.

And better yet that they were then slapped down.