High court to rule on police use of drug-detection roadblocks

Narcotics-sniffing dogs at traffic checkpoints challenged in Indiana

February 23, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, confronting a new tactic in the war on drugs, agreed yesterday to rule on the constitutionality of police roadblocks as a technique for finding cars that are carrying narcotics.

At issue is the Indianapolis Police Department's policy of making random stops at a roadblock to check for traffic violations and at the same time using drug-sniffing dogs to check on cars and their occupants.

A federal appeals court struck down the policy in July, saying it was not designed to protect highway safety, a purpose that would have made the roadblocks legal. Rather, that court said, it was used as "a pretext for a dragnet search for criminals."

In that ruling, Judge Richard Posner, writing for the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Chicago, said the Indianapolis strategy "belongs to the genre of general programs of surveillance which invade privacy wholesale in order to discover evidence of crime," amounting to an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.

Other lower courts disagree about the constitutionality of drug roadblocks, so the justices stepped in to resolve the controversy.

The Supreme Court in 1990 upheld drunken-driving roadblocks as a method of removing hazardous drivers from the roads.

Electric chair considered

In other action, the justices sent a somewhat confusing signal about their views on the constitutionality of the electric chair for executing murderers.

Three weeks after blocking the electrocution of Robert Lee Tarver in Alabama, the court -- over the dissents of four justices -- turned around yesterday and cleared the way for his execution.

The court order contained no explanation. It appeared, though, that the majority of the court may have found some technical defect in Tarver's appeal. Earlier, the court had agreed to rule on the constitutionality of electrocution in a Florida case, but that case ended when Florida's legislature switched the execution method to lethal injection.

Only Alabama, Georgia and Nebraska still use the electric chair as their sole method of execution. Georgia's legislature is moving to switch to lethal injection.

In other actions yesterday, the Supreme Court:

Refused, without comment, to clarify lower court rulings on Congress' power to link federal funds to a state's adherence to federal civil rights laws.

The justices denied review of an appeal by George Mason University, a state-run college in Virginia trying to head off a former student's sexual harassment claim against a professor.

A lower court had ruled that George Mason gave up its immunity to lawsuits by private parties as a condition for accepting federal education funds appropriated by Congress.

Refused, in a Maine case, to consider restricting police searches of homes when police are investigating computer-related crimes.

In July, Maine's Supreme Court upheld a sweeping search warrant in a case in which a computer was used to display sexually explicit photos of minor girls. That court said the warrant was not too broad even though it authorized a search of all computer gear to which a suspect had access, regardless of whether it was used in the crime.

Agreed to decide, in a case involving a high school's recruiting of a football player, whether an association that controls high school sports in a state must respect the constitutional rights of schools and students.

A federal appeals court ruled in a Tennessee case that the state Secondary Schools Athletic Association was not a part of the state government, so the Constitution did not limit the asociation's activities.

A private high school in Brentwood, Tenn., south of Nashville, known as a powerhouse in state football competition, contends that the association violated its free speech rights by moving to curb its recruiting of student athletes.

The case will be heard next fall and decided in about a year.

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