Oct. 10, 2017 – A West Allis police officer used her squad car to block an intersection with a police checkpoint, hoping to intercept an armed robbery suspect. It worked. Recently, a state appeals court rejected the defendant’s Fourth Amendment challenge.
Defendant Damien Scott, accused of robbing a bar owner at gunpoint, argued that police violated the Fourth Amendment because the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to checkpoint stop the vehicle in which he was riding as a passenger.
But in State v. Scott, 2016AP1742-CR (Oct. 10, 2017), a three-judge panel for the District I Appeals Court ruled that a “special needs exception” applied to the general rule that police must have individualized suspicion of criminal activity before making stops.
Writing for the panel, Judge William Brash III noted that Wisconsin appellate courts “have not adopted or even discussed this exception as it relates to checkpoints.”
But the panel noted that the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts have recognized special circumstances that may justify a checkpoint, including circumstances in which a dangerous criminal is “likely to flee by way of a particular route.”
Police knew that the robbery suspect was probably in the area. The bar owner, robbed of the night’s proceeds while walking to her vehicle with two patrons (one an accomplice) had waved down the officer just after the armed robbery occurred.
The bar owner said the suspect, a black male, had fled on foot towards an alley. The officer testified that standard protocol was to “contain the area” for a likely "flee by vehicle." Thus, she took a checkpoint position at an intersection one block from the crime scene.
The first vehicle the officer stopped contained two Hispanic males wearing factory worker clothes. They said they had just finished a shift. The officer let them pass.
Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
Two black males were in the second vehicle. The passenger, later identified as Scott, seemed nervous, was perspiring, and appeared to be wearing clothing that fit the victim’s description. Ultimately, police found the bar owner’s cash inside the vehicle.
The circuit court denied Scott’s motion to suppress evidence and he ultimately pled guilty to armed robbery. Other charges, including attempting to disarm a police officer and resisting arrest, were dismissed. Scott appealed the court’s ruling on evidence.
But the appeals court rejected his Fourth Amendment claim, relying on federal case law to rule that the officer’s checkpoint stop did not violate constitutional protections.
The panel noted that, in evaluating the special needs exception, courts look at reasonableness factors: the gravity of public concerns, the degree to which a seizure advances the public interest, and the severity of the interference with individual liberty.
Violent crimes are of great public concern, the panel noted, and the checkpoint advanced the public’s interest in catching a suspect known to be in the vicinity and likely attempting to flee by vehicle. It came down to the third factor: individual liberty.
“Based on our assessment of the circumstances as set forth in the record, we find that the severity of the interference with the individual liberties of those who were detained at the roadblock was minimal,” Judge Brash wrote. “[U]nder the circumstances, the checkpoint established immediately after the armed robbery was constitutional.”