Supreme Court of the United States
Illinois v. Robert S. Lidster
Decided Jan. 13, 2004 – 540 U.S. 419
Justice BREYER delivered the opinion of the Court.
This Fourth Amendment case focuses upon a highway checkpoint where police stopped motorists to ask them for information about a recent hit-and-run accident. We hold that the police stops were reasonable, hence, constitutional.
The relevant background is as follows: On Saturday, August 23, 1997, just after midnight, an unknown motorist traveling eastbound on a highway in Lombard, Illinois, struck and killed a 70–year–old bicyclist. The motorist drove off without identifying himself. About one week later at about the same time of night and at about the same place, local police set up a highway checkpoint designed to obtain more information about the accident from the motoring public.
Police cars with flashing lights partially blocked the eastbound lanes of the highway. The blockage forced traffic to slow down, leading to lines of up to 15 cars in each lane. As each vehicle drew up to the checkpoint, an officer would stop it for 10 to 15 seconds, ask the occupants whether they had seen anything happen there the previous weekend, and hand each driver a flyer. The flyer said “ALERT … FATAL HIT & RUN ACCIDENT” and requested “ASSISTANCE IN IDENTIFYING THE VEHICLE AND DRIVER INVOLVED IN THIS ACCIDENT WHICH KILLED A 70 YEAR OLD BICYCLIST.”
Robert Lidster, the respondent, drove a minivan toward the checkpoint. As he approached the checkpoint, his van swerved, nearly hitting one of the officers. The officer smelled alcohol on Lidster’s breath. He directed Lidster to a side street where another officer administered a sobriety test and then arrested Lidster. Lidster was tried and convicted in Illinois state court of driving under the influence of alcohol.
Lidster challenged the lawfulness of his arrest and conviction on the ground that the government had obtained much of the relevant evidence through use of a checkpoint stop that violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court rejected that challenge. But an Illinois appellate court reached the opposite conclusion. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court.
[W]e granted certiorari. We now reverse the Illinois Supreme Court’s determination.
The Illinois Supreme Court basically held that our decision in Edmond governs the outcome of this case. We do not agree. Edmond involved a checkpoint at which police stopped vehicles to look for evidence of drug crimes committed by occupants of those vehicles.
The checkpoint stop here differs significantly from that in Edmond. The stop’s primary law enforcement purpose was not to determine whether a vehicle’s occupants were committing a crime, but to ask vehicle occupants, as members of the public, for their help in providing information about a crime in all likelihood committed by others. The police expected the information elicited to help them apprehend, not the vehicle’s occupants, but other individuals.
The relevant public concern was grave. Police were investigating a crime that had resulted in a human death. No one denies the police’s need to obtain more information at that time. And the stop’s objective was to help find the perpetrator of a specific and known crime, not of unknown crimes of a general sort.
The stop advanced this grave public concern to a significant degree. The police appropriately tailored their checkpoint stops to fit important criminal investigatory needs. The stops took place about one week after the hit-and-run accident, on the same highway near the location of the accident, and at about the same time of night. And police used the stops to obtain information from drivers, some of whom might well have been in the vicinity of the crime at the time it occurred.
Most importantly, the stops interfered only minimally with liberty of the sort the Fourth Amendment seeks to protect. Viewed objectively, each stop required only a brief wait in line—a very few minutes at most. Contact with the police lasted only a few seconds. Police contact consisted simply of a request for information and the distribution of a flyer. Viewed subjectively, the contact provided little reason for anxiety or alarm. The police stopped all vehicles systematically. And there is no allegation here that the police acted in a discriminatory or otherwise unlawful manner while questioning motorists during stops.
For these reasons we conclude that the checkpoint stop was constitutional.
The judgment of the Illinois Supreme Court is [r]eversed.
Notes, Comments, and Questions
The Court made clear in Indianapolis v. Edmond that police may not establish checkpoints to investigate whether drivers are transporting illegal drugs. Consider a department that responds as follows:
Police post signs with text like “Drug Checkpoint Ahead” on public highways. Then, after observing drivers who promptly exit the highway after passing the sign, officers investigate the drivers for drug activity. Lawful? Why or why not?
See, e.g., United States v. Williams, 359 F.3d 1019 (8th Cir. 2004) (holding that because “there was no checkpoint,” Edmond did not apply); United States v. Neff, 681 F.3d 1134 (10th Cir. 2012) (holding that the fake-checkpoint ruse was lawful but that “standing alone,” a driver’s choice to exit after seeing the sign “is insufficient to justify even a brief investigatory detention of a vehicle”); compare State v. Mack, 66 S.W.3d 706 (Mo. 2002) (finding that “it is reasonable to conclude that drivers with drugs would ‘take the bait’ and exit” and holding that stop was reasonable in part because “the checkpoint was set up in an isolated and sparsely populated area offering no services to motorists and was conducted on an evening that would otherwise have little traffic”); with id. at 710 (Stith, J., dissenting) (arguing that seizure was unreasonable under Edmond).
If a driver exiting the highway immediately after passing a “drug checkpoint ahead” sign is not sufficient to provide reasonable suspicion to justify a vehicle stop (as the Tenth Circuit held), what else should be necessary to justify the stop? In other words, what else must an officer observe after the car exits?
This tactic has attracted attention from the surveilled community. See, e.g., Steve Elliot, “Cops Set Up Fake ‘Drug Checkpoint’ Signs; Detain and Search Drivers Who React,” Toke Signals (Jan. 28, 2014); TJ Green, “Fake Drug Checkpoints Are Becoming More Devious,” Weed Blog (May 3, 2012).