First Amendment

NYPD Orders Google to Trash Checkpoint Warnings

First Amendment be damned!


Andrey Bayda/

The New York City Police Department (NYPD) wants Google to trash a feature on one of its apps that lets users report drunk-driving checkpoints. Not so fast, responds Google.

The application in question is Waze, a community-based navigation app that allows users to report car accidents, traffic jams, and police activity. While there isn't a specific feature that lets people report checkpoints meant to catch intoxicated offenders, users can leave comments specifying the type of police activity, according to The New York Times.

"Individuals who post the locations of DWI checkpoints may be engaging in criminal conduct since such actions could be intentional attempts to prevent and/or impair the administration of the DWI laws and other relevant criminal and traffic laws," reads a February 2, 2019 cease-and-desist letter to Google from Ann Prunty, the NYPD's acting deputy commissioner in charge of legal matters. "The posting of such information for public consumption is irresponsible since it only serves to aid impaired and intoxicated drivers to evade checkpoints and encourage reckless driving. Revealing the location of checkpoints puts those drivers, their passengers, and the general public at risk," Prunty adds in the letter, which was first reported by StreetsBlog NYC.

I shouldn't have to point this out, but posting that information does not "only" aid intoxicated drivers. It's a help to any sober driver who wants to avoid the delays and hassle that these Fourth Amendment–shredding checkpoints impose. Indeed, there's a good chance that most of the people using the information are sober. "If you are impaired, you are not going to pay attention to that information," Helen Witty, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, tells the Times.

The NYPD's concerns are shared by the National Sheriff's Association, which emphasizes on its website: "There is NO legitimate reason for Waze to have the police locator feature!" In addition to the drunk-driving aspect of the app, the organization says Waze tracks users' movements (though that's sort of the point of navigation apps). The site adds that this information "can be shared with anyone including gang members and terrorist!" (Just the one terrorist, apparently.)

In regard to drunk-driving checkpoints, the NYPD claims it "will pursue all legal remedies to prevent the continued posting of this irresponsible and dangerous information," though Prunty does not detail how. The department also doesn't say how posting DWI checkpoint information is illegal. That might be because it's not. "Much as the police may not like it, the public has a First Amendment right to warn others about police activity," the American Civil Liberties Union tells the New York Post.

Google, for its part, seems to have zero interest in complying with the NYPD's demand, which the Post notes could also apply Waze's speed camera-reporting feature. "Safety is a top priority when developing navigation features at Google," the company said in a statement, according to WPIX. "We believe that informing drivers about upcoming speed traps allows them to be more careful and make safer decisions when they're on the road."

Google is not likely to change its stance, reports The Verge. While pressure from the Senate prompted Apple to remove some drunk-driving checkpoint apps in 2011, Google refused to fold. "Chances are, the NYPD's letter will not be the thing that makes the company change its mind," The Verge points out.

Bonus links: Some local governments really don't like it when their traffic authority gets challenged. In 2017, Reason's Eric Boehm wrote about an Oregon man who researched the effectiveness of red light cameras after his wife got a ticket. The Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying responded by fining him $500 for practicing engineering without a license. After he sued, he got a refund. In 2012, meanwhile, a Missouri man received a $1,000 ticket for flashing his headlights to warn fellow motorists about a speed trap. A federal judge eventually ruled in his favor.