D.C. Police Neighborhood Checkpoints Challenged on Appeal

by Mike Scarcella, The BLT: The Blog Of LegalTimes, May 08, 2009

A civil rights lawyer arguing against a D.C. anti-crime measure in which police barricade neighborhoods and stop drivers seemed to find a receptive audience today at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice Legal Defense & Education Fund, argued on behalf of D.C. residents who are challenging a police program called Neighborhood Safety Zones. U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in October denied a preliminary injunction against the city, setting up the appeal.

Lawyers for the city say the zones, which were used last summer, are designed to prevent and deter criminal activity. Police stop and question drivers, asking for identification and travel plans. Officers are instructed to get phone numbers in order to verify information provided by the driver or passengers. Police say a Neighborhood Safety Zone can be set up for 10 days in response to a spike in crime.

Critics of the program argue police do not have authority to stop drivers when there is no suspicion of illegal activity. “The irreparable harm is the deprivation of their fundamental constitutional rights,” Verheyden-Hilliard told today’s panel of Chief Judge David Sentelle and Judges Douglas Ginsburg and Judith Rogers.

Sentelle at one point asked Todd Kim, the lawyer from the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, whether he thought he could really win on the merits of the case. “There’s no question it’s an extraordinary program. Tell me how [the police] can constitutionally do this,” Sentelle said. And Ginsburg explored the extent to which police are invading a person’s private life by requiring the person to provide a phone number of a person who can verify plans.

Kim said during argument, “Remember, the ultimate touchstone of the 4th Amendment is reasonableness.” He argued the plaintiffs have not shown how they’ve been harmed by the program. The D.C. Circuit did not rule immediately on the preliminary injunction.

Copies of the opening Appellate Brief can be read by clicking here. The initial Class Action Complaint, Mills, et al v. District of Columbia can be read by clicking here, and the Memorandum of Law in Support of a Preliminary Injunction can be read by clicking here.

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