By Brett Zongker
WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court said Friday that police checkpoints in a crime-plagued Washington neighborhood are unconstitutional and ordered a lower court to reconsider its refusal to block the program.
In June 2008, District of Columbia police began stopping cars in the Trinidad neighborhood, refusing to let in motorists who did not prove they lived in the area or reveal their destinations. The Partnership for Civil Justice sued on behalf of three drivers.
"It is apparent that appellants' constitutional rights are violated," Chief Judge David B. Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit wrote in the ruling Friday, citing several Supreme Court cases as precedent.
The ruling sends the case back to the U.S. District Court where a judge had refused to halt the checkpoints program.
The Metropolitan Police Department created the checkpoints in response to a string of shootings where suspected gang members drove into the neighborhood, opened fire and quickly left. The checkpoints were only used twice in 2008, city officials said.
D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said the appeals court decision effectively halts the checkpoints for now. He said city officials will consider whether to ask the Supreme Court to consider the case, change the policy or argue for the checkpoints before the lower court.
Police Chief Cathy Lanier had said she would continue using the checkpoints to deter crime until a court told her not to. On Friday, she said the department had attempted to abide by the Constitution.
"We certainly did not attempt to circumvent the Fourth Amendment in implementing the Neighborhood Safety Zones," Lanier said in a statement. "We all did what was appropriate and what we believed to be lawful to save lives."
The Partnership for Civil Justice called the court's decision a "major victory" in protecting fundamental constitutional rights.
D.C. residents "have the right to travel freely on public streets without being subjected to police seizure and interrogation" in the absence of any allegation, said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney with the group.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three of the 48 drivers who were stopped by police and not allowed to pass through the neighborhood because they refused to provide certain information. Those named as appellants in the case were Caneisha Mills, Linda Leaks and Sarah Sloan.
Courts have differed on the legality of checkpoints. In 1996, a federal appeals court said it was reasonable for New York City police to stop motorists at random hours in the Bronx to curtail drive-by shootings, drugs and robberies.
But the Supreme Court in 2000 struck down roadblocks in Indianapolis, saying general crime control is not enough of a reason to stop motorists. The D.C. appeals court found the Indianapolis case prevailed over other Supreme Court rulings on checkpoints.
It can't be denied "that citizens have a right to drive upon the public streets of the District of Columbia or any other city absent a constitutionally sound reason for limiting their access," Sentelle wrote for the three-judge panel.
Police officers who implemented the program have long considered it unconstitutional and damaging to their relationships with residents, said Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the D.C. police union.
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"There is a line as police officers that we do not cross and this is one of them," Baumann said. "The officers - not the politicians, not the management - did not like this program because it was unconstitutional, and it hurt our relationship with people."