Friday, February 03, 2006

AD4 strikes down "Rochester Initiative" roadblocks

People v Trotter, __ AD3d __ [available here]

The Fourth Department handed down decisions for its January term today. I am out of town and will not be able to post fully until Monday. It seems the most significant criminal decision is People v Trotter, where the Fourth Department affirmed the trial court's suppression of drugs found in a car stopped at a roadblock as part of the so-called "Rochester Initiative". The Initiative targeted the "crescent" section of Rochester. Roadblocks were part of a general crime suppression plan; as the Fourth Department notes in its decision, "During the two-month period of the Rochester Initiative, 46 checkpoints were conducted, all at night, all in the target area, and all by personnel from the three participating law enforcement agencies." (Trotter, __ AD3d at __.) The People argued the roadblocks were constitutional because regardless of the overarching purpose of the Initiative, the police running the checkpoints "were instructed and did engage in checking each vehicle stop for windshield stickers, driver's licenses and registrations." (Id. at __.) The Fourth Department disagreed and held the stops unconstitutional:

Were we to examine the checkpoint procedure independently of the underlying function of the task force, we would conclude that there would be no constitutional infirmity. The officers stopped every vehicle, whereupon they checked the windshield stickers, driver's licenses and registrations. According to the testimony at the suppression hearing, if all was in order, the officers sent the drivers "on their way." Standing alone, such a checkpoint would be a permissible routine highway safety-related stop under Edmond and Prouse. The checkpoint was not, however, conducted in isolation. Rather, the record establishes that the checkpoint was an inseparable part of the Rochester initiative, the purpose of which was to detect and deter violent crime and drug trafficking in the target area by the use of the checkpoint . . . [a]ccordingly, we conclude that the order suppressing the evidence at issue should be affirmed and the indictment dismissed.

The Fourth Department made the right call on this issue. If the People's argument was adopted, then any roadblock could be insulated from constitutional challenge as long as the police check registration stickers as part of the stop. Such an exception would swallow the general rule that a roadblock set up "to uncover evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing . . . contravenes the Fourth Amendment." (Id. at __.)

Regular posting to resume next week.