I 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.