WASHINGTON A civil liberties group has filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the District of Columbia police department's vehicle checkpoint program, calling the "military-style" initiative unconstitutional and ineffective.
The class-action lawsuit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Washington by the Partnership for Civil Justice on behalf of four D.C. residents who were stopped by the checkpoints earlier this month in the city's Trinidad neighborhood.
The checkpoints were in effect in Trinidad for six days beginning June 7. The initiative requires officers to check drivers' ID and turn away those who don't have a "legitimate purpose" in the area, such as a doctor's appointment or church visit. Police have said the checkpoints could be used in other areas that experience a surge in violence.
The lawsuit also asks the court to throw out data that police collected on law-abiding citizens who were stopped at the checkpoints.
"The District's military-style roadblock system ... is neither constitutional, nor effective," the lawsuit states. "There is an urgent need to tackle the problems of violence, street crime, unemployment and education. This roadblock does not address any of them."
Police say they turned away 46 of the more than 700 vehicles that tried to pass through checkpoints. One person was arrested for driving with alcohol. The neighborhood had no shootings while the checkpoints were in place.
At a D.C. Council hearing Monday, police Chief Cathy Lanier refused to rule out using the checkpoints in the future, despite the pleas of several council members who said the tactic had brought the city a rash of bad publicity.
William Robinson, a retired D.C. schoolteacher who has lived in the Trinidad neighborhood for more than 50 years, is among those suing. He described Trinidad as a mostly safe area where people go about their business and compared the checkpoints to "living in a police state."
Interim D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles defended the program, saying something had to be done after a particularly violent weekend in early June in which eight people were killed, including three in the Trinidad area.
Nickles said the initiative was narrowly focused with one goal preventing people from driving into the neighborhood, shooting at residents, and then fleeing. He said officials examined other cases to make sure the initiative passed constitutional muster.
"We've heard all his arguments," said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney who filed the lawsuit. But she maintained that the checkpoints are "flatly unconstitutional."
Nickles cited a case involving New York City police, who once stopped motorists in the Bronx at random hours to curtail drive-by shootings, drugs and robberies. Neighborhood residents and commercial vehicles were allowed to pass, while others were turned away.
A federal appeals court ruled in 1996 that those police tactics were constitutional, saying that the checkpoints "were reasonably viewed as an effective mechanism" to reduce drive-by shootings. But in a Supreme Court case from 2000, justices struck the roadblocks down, claiming they violated the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable search and seizure.