Police Check Points: An Emotional Argument Against

car_train05I live in Escondido, California, near San Diego. Both Escondido and San Diego use police “check points” on a regular basis. A heavily trafficked place is chosen by police, barriers are erected, and cars are stopped (presumably at random), to check drivers licenses. Drivers are also asked if they have been drinking. In the course of the stop, an officer may pick up the scent of alcohol or see empty beer cans on the back seat. That may lead to a DUI. Lack of a license may lead to deportation, if the driver doesn’t produce a valid license or another cause is identified for further detention.

The policy justification for check points is, of course, that they reduce the incidence of DUIs (and accidents), and lead to the capture of criminals and undocumented residents.
There are differences about how effectively check points accomplish all of these goals; or if they are sufficiently effective to outweigh civil liberty and privacy concerns.

Because they don’t require police to stipulate a “probable cause” for a stop, you might think check points are prohibited by the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (regarding illegal searches and seizures). But federal courts have upheld the practice, as long as certain procedures are followed. I don’t think legal story is entirely over.

Even though I have a valid drivers license, am not a criminal, don’t drive under the influence, and am not undocumented, I have a viscerally negative reaction to the check points. Analytically, my views about check points are well represented by a recent blog article  written by Pat Mues, who blogs regularly (and brilliantly) on Escondido politics and society. So, I won’t use this space to make the analytic argument against the practice; read Ms. Mues’ article.  Perhaps (I hope) uncharacteristically (for this blog), I will make the purely emotional case against it.

Supporters of check points argue that average, middle class, law abiding citizens, are (somehow) reassured by check points. They don’t find them especially invasive or intimidating, it is proposed, because “we” as “good people,” have nothing to fear when encountering a barricade, flashing lights, and an inquiring officer, with more lights. The check points are also supposed to be re-assuring to businesses, which naturally want their city to have the reputation of being safe and habitable. Check points are believed by some to improve the reputation and business climate of a city.

As one of the demographically identified folks who are supposed to be re-assured by the check points, I challenge these notions, admittedly and without apology, on emotional grounds. I was raised in a Jewish household in New York City, where my grandmother and her senior friends often told stories (with tears) about once living in places in Europe where police could knock forcefully on doors, come into your house, stop you on streets, without reason, cause or warrants. They talked about the sheer terror of living that way.

San Diego, thank goodness, is of course nothing like my grandmother’s home land (in decades past).  And check points are not the same as the terror my ancestors experienced, Nonetheless, I can recall my heart racing and anger rising, the first time I encountered a check point in Escondido. That was a visceral response. I reacted that way, even though, realistically, I had nothing to fear or hide; and had (still have) the utmost trust and admiration for Escondido officers. But it’s not enough to tell me I need to take a pill and lie down.

Many supporters of practices like check points and stop and frisk laws in America don’t comprehend how repugnant they are to so many (of us) “average” people, who are not criminals, regularly inebriated,  or “here illegally.”  So, when I first visited San Diego before re-locating here, and encountered a check point, do you think I called back home to tell my family and business friends to rush down and buy real estate or open a business?  My late wife Cheryl and I moved here because of weather and proximity to family, not because we felt re-assured about living in a city with check points.

Research on the efficacy of check points is not conclusive. (I will get push back on that). But even if it was, research alone can’t be used to justify the practice. We can make a city 100% safe if we just wired every inch of it for sound and video and tapped every phone call.


2 thoughts on “Police Check Points: An Emotional Argument Against

  1. Alex MacLachlan

    Irv, I would viscerally have the same reaction to yours if I encountered a check point. From a freedom and privacy standpoint it would boil me, but I find myself defending them (barely) because of the way Liberals in Escondido have turned this questionable law enforcement technique into an indictment against a “racist Police force and their racist white republican supporters”. This is the inference Pat Mues constantly makes in her blogs, which she hopes to use for political gain, even though two of the four Republican politicians she intends to smear are of minority descent. I’ve witnessed adult MECHA leaders with bullhorns leading children in chants in front of City Hall and down the sidewalks of busy Escondido streets. They chant “NO JUSTICE NO PEACE, RACIST POLICE” regarding this checkpoint policy, even though none of those children were alive during the Rodney King riots in LA in the early 90’s. Those riots inspired murder, mayhem, arson, and assault on Koreans, Latinos, Blacks, and Whites all in the name of “NO JUSTICE NO PEACE, RACIST POLICE”.
    Yes, I think this policy skirts probable cause and defends itself by giving you an out to avoid the stop (if you are aware which most aren’t). But again, if the Left in this Country wants to find agreement on issues like these, stop calling people racists where it doesn’t exist. You create opposition where agreement exist merely by making dishonorable charges for political gain.
    PS. Let me clarify Irv has made no such charge here. This is a more general statement of advice for civil disagreement. When I brought this advice to Pat Mues’s blog, she just deletes opposing views and publishes those who agree with her. Not much of an editorialist who wants all to hear her criticisms of others and deletes the ones who disagree or criticize her. Irv has never been close minded to opposing views.


    1. Irv Lefberg Post author

      Thanks Alex for comment , and perspective on relations here between police and community. I haven’t seen/heard the specific protests you mention , but of course have witnessed my share of these elsewhere. Maybe I’m uninformed (and also non uniformed) or naive , but I’m not aware of any serious, systemic abuse of authority issues in Escondido. I emphasize word “systemic”, because I think most police forces in mid to large size cities in CA have done a lot to address (potential) race related conflicts or abuses. My sense is that Escondidio has too. They don’t prevent 100% of problems, but the police chiefs I’ve witnessed here, and a few high level officers I’ve met and gotten to know a bit, seem to be enlightened about these issues. I never viewed the check point policy here as emanating from the Department, but rather from the politicians. I could be wrong about that.

      I generally hate it when adults use kids for protests, even if I agree with the particular protest.

      BTW, just learned from a former WA colleague, that sobriety check points have been declared unconstitutional under WA state constitution.

      Oh yes, I got sucked into a checkpoint here a second time recently, and for a few very scary moments couldn’t find my drivers license , because I had put it into the wrong compartment of my wallet. I guess my blood pressure meds did their job , until I found it, with an increasingly impatient (but still polite) officer hovering. Still doesn’t feel right!!! There’s got to be better ways.

      Sent from my iPad




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