It is well known that for many years the police have at times utilized traffic checkpoints, for example to look for intoxicated drivers. What exactly constitutes a traffic checkpoint for purposes of analyzing whether the stop of a driver constitutes an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was explored in a reported opinion this week from Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals in a case called Clifton Johnson v. State of Maryland.
The opinion indicates that Baltimore City Police conducted what they called a traffic initiative at a busy intersection in downtown Baltimore. Motorists who had a green light were not stopped, but officers would observe drivers who stopped at a red light to see if they were violating the law by failing to wear a seat belt or talking on their cell phone. If an officer observed a violation, the driver was instructed to pull over to be given a citation.
Johnson stopped at the light, and was observed not to be wearing a seat belt and was told to pull over. He could not produce his license or vehicle registration, and MVA had no record of the vehicle’s license plate. Using Johnson’s name and date of birth, officers determined there was an open warrant for him, and he was placed under arrest. An inventory of the vehicle before towing it revealed a loaded handgun under the seat. Johnson’s motion to suppress the handgun from use as evidence against him was denied, and he was convicted of several firearms’ offenses.
On appeal, defense counsel argued that Johnson had been stopped at an unconstitutional traffic checkpoint, so the search of the vehicle was improper. The appellate Court noted prior case law that held that a traffic checkpoint is lawful if its primary purpose is to police a border or ensure traffic safety. Thus, cases previously held that a sobriety checkpoint is a reasonable method of preventing drunk driving, so long as the Court reviews some 13 factors as to whether the checkpoint is limited and reasonable.
Here, the Court agreed with the trial judge that this traffic initiative was not a checkpoint. There was no roadblock, drivers were permitted to drive through on a green light and drivers were only told to pull over if they had already stopped and were observed to be violating traffic laws. Since that is what happened here, and Johnson had no license, registration or proper plates on the car, the subsequent arrest and search of the vehicle did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.