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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Condemns Police ‘Safety’ Checkpoints as Unconstitutional, Calls for Balance in Police-Citizen Dynamic

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, is calling on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors to review a July 11th incident in which county police shut down access to a quiet suburban subdivision in order to conduct a three-hour “safety” check in the middle of a summer afternoon. More than 262 people were stopped and forced to show identification and, in some cases, registration in order to enter or exit the subdivision, which is neither crime-ridden nor heavily traveled. One resident who objected to being detained at the checkpoint, citing his Fourth Amendment right to be free from such searches and seizures in the absence of probable cause, was allegedly subjected to shouts and threats by police to smash his car window and have him arrested.

The traffic stop, which Whitehead points out was an unconstitutional and costly use of taxpayer and police resources, came on the heels of two other heavy-handed showings of police force in recent months in the close-knit community. The first incident involved the lockdown of a well-to-do residential street so that a SWAT team could raid a home suspected as being the site of a fake ID scam. The second involved a sting operation in which state law enforcement officials targeted and pursued several college students in a darkened parking lot after mistaking their cans of sparkling water for an underage alcohol purchase. As Whitehead points out, these incidents only serve to reinforce The Rutherford Institute’s concerns about the deteriorating relationship and role reversal between police, charged with being public servants and peacekeepers, and the taxpayers who pay their salaries.

“I truly believe that if we are to have any hope of preserving our freedoms, especially our Fourth Amendment rights, we must begin at the local level, in communities such as ours, with a mutual commitment by local governing bodies, law enforcement and residents to working through any challenges that might arise,” said Whitehead, who addresses these very issues in his new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State (SelectBooks, 2013). “The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes clear that law-abiding citizens have a right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. While this important safeguard against government abuse has taken quite a beating in recent years, it remains one of the best defenses we have against tyranny in its varied forms.”

On Thursday, July 11, 2013, six police officers and one supervisor with the Albemarle County Police Department (ACPD) shut down access to the Raintree subdivision via Old Brook Road from 1-4 pm, while officers set up a license checkpoint. According to ACPD officials, 262 people were stopped and forced to show identification and, in some cases, registration in order to enter or exit the subdivision. Of these 262, only 18 received tickets for any sort of traffic violation. ACPD claimed the purpose of the checkpoint was because “nearby residents had complained about traffic safety.” When asked to elaborate, one police officer on site explained the checkpoint was put in place to deter speeders. Despite the statements by the police that their motive in erecting the barrier was “safety,” photographs and video from the site clearly show a sign identifying the site as a “license checkpoint.” Pointing out that such checkpoints, carried out in the absence of any urgent need or for the stated purpose of generalized crime control and drug interdiction, do not rise to the levels established by jurisprudence, Whitehead has asked the County Board of Supervisors to ensure that the rights of the citizenry are not jeopardized for the sake of revenue or unnecessary shows of force.