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Checkpoint stop justified by “special needs” of law enforcement

State v. Damien Markeith Divone Scott, 2016AP1742-CR, District 1, 10/10/17 (recommended for publication); case activity (including briefs)

In this case of first impression in Wisconsin, the court of appeals holds that the stop of a car at a police checkpoint was justified by the “special needs” of law enforcement.

After police responded to a report of an armed robbery they set out to “contain the area” around the robbery so they could try to find the fleeing suspects. One officer parked her squad car across a street to block traffic and investigated the occupants of the cars stopped by her checkpoint. Scott was a passenger in the second car that came along and, based on his clothing, demeanor, and conduct, police suspected he was involved in the robbery. After he was arrested police found evidence linking him to the crime. (¶¶4-9).

The circuit court held police had reasonable suspicion to stop the car Scott was in, but in the face of Scott’s appeal the state concedes that wasn’t the case. (¶16). Instead, the state argues, the stop was reasonable under the “special needs exception” that permits police checkpoints in the absence of individualized suspicion. The court of appeals agrees:

¶17     In explaining the special needs exception, the United States Supreme Court stated that there are “circumstances that may justify a law enforcement checkpoint where the primary purpose would otherwise, but for some emergency, relate to ordinary crime control.” [City of Indianapolis v.] Edmond, 531 U.S. [32,] 44 [(2000) (a checkpoint set up with the primary purpose of uncovering evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing is unconstitutional)]. In fact, the Court noted examples such as “an appropriately tailored roadblock set up to thwart an imminent terrorist attack or to catch a dangerous criminal who is likely to flee by way of a particular route” as situations in which the special needs exception could be properly invoked. Id. In other words, under circumstances where “special law enforcement concerns … justify highway stops without individualized suspicion,” the application of the special needs exception may be appropriate. [Illinois v.] Lidster, 540 U.S. [419,] 424 [(2004) (checkpoint set up to seek information about a hit-and-run accident that occurred in the area wasn’t ordinary crime control and, on balance, was reasonable)].


¶21     … [N]either [Edmond nor Lidster] exactly tracks the factual scenario here: a Fourth Amendment claim where individualized suspicion is developed toward a particular person after the initial checkpoint stop. However, a similar situation was addressed … in United States v. Paetsch, 782 F.3d 1162 (10th Cir. 2015), cert. denied, 136 S. Ct. 195 (2015) [challenging police action in barricading 20 cars on a street to locate the car in which a GPS tracker was concealed amongst cash stolen from a bank]….


¶24     The Tenth Circuit … applied the special needs exception as it was applied … in Lidster, because “the primary purpose of [the] group seizure went beyond ordinary crime control.” Paetsch, 782 F.3d at 1169. The court then applied the reasonableness factors to the circumstances of the establishment of the barricade, and found that because the first two factors (the gravity of the public concern and the degree to which the seizure advanced the public interest) outweighed the third (the severity of the interference with individual liberty), the barricade did not violate Paetsch’s Fourth Amendment rights. Id. at 1175.

¶25     Turning to the facts here, the reasoning behind the checkpoint established by Officer Luedtke moments after the armed robbery is very similar to the purpose of the barricade established by the police in Paetsch: although Officer Luedtke did not have the benefit of a GPS tracker, she knew from her experience that the perpetrator had likely accessed a nearby vehicle after fleeing the immediate scene on foot. As such, the primary purpose of the checkpoint here went beyond ordinary crime control, in that it was an “appropriately tailored roadblock” set up by the police in order to apprehend “a dangerous criminal” who was “likely to flee by way of a particular route.” See Edmond, 531 U.S. at 44. Therefore, rather than applying the “presumptive rule of unconstitutionality” to this checkpoint, we find that these circumstances warrant an analysis as to whether the application of the special needs exception to the protections of the Fourth Amendment, as it has been applied in federal case law, is appropriate here. See Lidster, 540 U.S. at 426.

¶26     …. First, the gravity of the public concern is clear, in that an armed individual had just committed a robbery in the vicinity of where the roadblock was established. See Paetsch, 782 F.3d at 1170. The second factor, the degree to which the seizure advanced the public interest, is demonstrated by the effectiveness of the barricade: the perpetrator of the armed robbery—Scott—was apprehended in the second vehicle stopped at the roadblock, and taken into custody. See id. at 1171.

¶27     …[T]he final step of the analysis is to weigh the first two factors against the third factor: the severity of the interference with individual liberty. See id. at 1172. In this case, there were three vehicles affected by the roadblock. In the first vehicle, the occupants were determined to be factory workers on their way home, and they were waived through the roadblock in mere seconds. The second vehicle contained Scott, who was quickly identified as a suspect and taken into custody shortly after the vehicle was stopped. The third vehicle was allowed to leave the scene while the officers were taking Scott into custody.

¶28     Based on our assessment of the circumstances as set forth in the record, we find that the severity of the interference with the individual liberties of those who were detained at the roadblock was minimal. Therefore, we find that in this case the Fourth Amendment protections represented by the third factor do not outweigh the public interest aspects of the first two factors.

¶29     As a result, we find that, under these circumstances, the checkpoint established immediately after the armed robbery was constitutional. ….

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