WASHINGTON -- A civil liberties group argued Friday that a federal judge was wrong when he refused to block the District of Columbia police department's vehicle checkpoint program, saying the initiative is an invasion of privacy.
The Partnership for Civil Justice sued the city in June after police began stopping cars and screening drivers and their passengers in the Trinidad neighborhood following a spike in shootings. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four D.C. residents.
Motorists were turned away unless they showed identification and gave police a "legitimate" reason to be in the area. Besides living in the neighborhood, those reasons included visiting a doctor or relative, picking up a child, or going to church.
The checkpoint was initially set up at random hours over six days. About a month later, police used the initiative for another eight days. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has said she would use checkpoints again if needed.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon refused in October to stop the checkpoints, arguing that doing so would hurt the city's ability to protect residents from violence. He also said the plaintiffs could not show they would suffer irreparable injury if he did not grant an injunction.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney with the civil liberties group, argued Friday before a three-judge appeals panel that the harm was clear -- because the checkpoints deprived residents of "fundamental constitutional rights."
"The privacy intrusion is not limited to vehicles which happen upon a targeted roadway, as is the case at a sobriety stop," the plaintiffs state in court documents. "The privacy intrusion encompasses a neighborhood as a whole. Residents must pass through the checkpoints, and submit to some degree of questioning, every time they wish to return to their homes."
Verheyden-Hilliard also argued that the police department's distinctions of who could enter the neighborhood were arbitrary.
Courts have had different opinions 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.
District officials have argued their checkpoint program is legal because it was narrowly tailored to put a stop to drive-by shootings. They also pointed out that people were free to leave or enter the neighborhood on foot.
"We're not talking about general crime control, but rather chronic waves of violence," Todd Kim, D.C.'s solicitor general, said of the checkpoints' purpose.