Police Abuse

Anti-Crime Checkpoints in Jackson, Mississippi, Blatantly Violate the Fourth Amendment

To "get wanted individuals off the streets," police are stopping drivers without any evidence that they have broken the law.


"We're checking driver's license, proof of insurance," a Jackson, Mississippi, police officer tells Wayne Halcomb, a local resident who is waiting in a long line of cars at an anti-crime checkpoint. "Why?" Halcomb asks. "Have I committed a crime?" The officer, who has stopped Halcomb without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, is puzzled by his resistance but eventually lets him go after he repeatedly refuses to produce his license or proof of insurance. "Am I being detained?" Halcomb asks. "No," the officer responds, and Halcomb drives off.

"That's how you deal with checkpoints, people," Halcomb adds in his video of the encounter, which he posted on Facebook. The incident illustrates the intrusiveness of the blatantly unconstitutional traffic stops that the Jackson Police Department has been conducting in the state capital since last month in an effort to catch people with outstanding warrants. "People should be outraged at what happened," Halcomb told WLBT, the NBC station in Jackson. "I definitely recognize that I have white privilege, and I try to use my white privilege to shine a light on some of the issues going on."

The Supreme Court explained those issues in a 2000 decision that said Indianapolis checkpoints aimed at disrupting drug trafficking were unconstitutional. "We suggested in [the 1979 case Delaware v. Prouse] that we would not credit the 'general interest in crime control' as justification for a regime of suspicionless stops," the Court said in Indianapolis v. Edmond. "Consistent with this suggestion, each of the checkpoint programs that we have approved was designed primarily to serve purposes closely related to the problems of policing the border or the necessity of ensuring roadway safety. Because the primary purpose of the Indianapolis narcotics checkpoint program is to uncover evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing, the program contravenes the Fourth Amendment."

According to Jackson Police Chief James Davis, his department's "Ticket, Arrest, Tow" (TAT) program has precisely the aim that the Supreme Court said was constitutionally unacceptable. Davis, who says the program involves "administrative checkpoint[s] where we are looking for wanted individuals," bragged last week that "we done made over 100 felony arrests since we started in January."

Davis' response to complaints about the TAT checkpoints, which have disproportionately affected black drivers, suggests he is oblivious to the constraints imposed by the Fourth Amendment. "They took it wrong, like it's something that we are targeting a certain group of people," he said. "Our intent is to get wanted individuals off the streets." But according to the Supreme Court, that intent cannot justify stopping drivers without any reason to think they have committed traffic violations or otherwise broken the law.

The ACLU of Mississippi tried to explain that in a letter to Davis last Thursday. "It is established law that checkpoint programs that have the primary purpose of general crime control violate the Fourth Amendment," wrote the organization's legal director, Joshua Tom. "It is evident that the Checkpoint Initiative's stated primary purpose is general crime control. It is therefore unconstitutional under established federal law."

Davis should be aware of this point in light of a federal lawsuit that the ACLU of Mississippi filed against the sheriff's department in nearby Madison County five years ago. "Madison County expended significant time, money, and resources defending itself over the course of two-and-a-half years," Tom noted, "only to enter a court-supervised, four-year consent decree under which, amongst many other things, the Madison County Sheriff agreed to change its policies, procedures, training, and tracking of its checkpoints." If the Jackson Police Department "continues to engage in unconstitutional policing like the Checkpoint Initiative," he warned, "we are ready to vindicate the rights of our fellow Jacksonians."

Jackson's anti-crime strategy seems inconsistent with the reputation of Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, an activist and self-described progressive who was first elected in 2017 and won a second term in 2021, when he was endorsed by the country's best-known democratic socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.). "I am a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and also a member of Cooperation Jackson, the Coalition for Economic Justice, and the Human Rights Collective, which are organizations steeped in the idea of creating self-determination and seeing human rights for human beings," Lumumba said in a 2017 interview. But he also noted that "crime is high" in Jackson and promised "some steps" that "we believe will really help bring a change in the city of Jackson."

The TAT program certainly qualifies as a step, and it has indeed brought change to Jackson. Whether that change should be welcomed by people who care about civil liberties and racial bias in policing is another matter.

"Citizens have had some loud and passionate reactions to daily roadblocks/checkpoints set up by the Jackson Police Department all over the city," local podcast and radio host Brad Franklin writes in The Jackson Advocate, an African-American weekly. "Some see it as a welcome attempt to curb the recent surge in crime. Others, like me, see it as something different—an attack on impoverished people."

Franklin relates his own experience with the snowballing effect that traffic enforcement can have on people of modest means. It began with a "routine traffic ticket" that he could not afford to pay, which led to the suspension of his driver's license, resulting in further fines whenever he was caught behind the wheel. Franklin says he also could not afford car insurance, which led to more fines. Eventually he owed "over $5,000 in fines and court costs," which he managed to pay with a loan that "put me in more debt."

Franklin, unlike many of the people stopped at TAT checkpoints, had actually broken the law. But even when Jackson's dragnet catches people who are guilty of traffic violations, any public safety benefit has to be weighed against the severe burdens that the crackdown imposes on otherwise law-abiding people. Suspending driver's licenses is an especially disruptive and impoverishing penalty, Franklin notes, since it means that people cannot legally drive to the jobs they need to pay off their fines. And if they dare to do so anyway, they are subject to additional fines.

"Citizens are being arrested, and their vehicles towed on the spot if they don't have the required documents," Franklin says. "Here's the rub: if you tow the vehicles, how do they get to work to make the money to get the vehicle out of the impound?"

Davis says the checkpoints also have led to arrests of more serious lawbreakers. The same could be said of random pat-downs or warrantless home searches. But the Fourth Amendment, for good reason, prohibits those tactics, just as it forbids suspicionless vehicle stops aimed at "get[ting] wanted individuals off the streets," as Davis puts it.

"You can't treat everyone like a criminal to find the criminals," Halcomb told WJTV, the CBS station in Jackson. "I mean, that's just not the way America works."

For now, however, it is the way Jackson works. Davis seems unfazed by the criticism from residents and the ACLU. "It's making a difference," he says, "and I'm committed to doing all we can to keep Jackson safe."