Police checkpoints: What are the legal issues?

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Every year, the Kansas City Police Department performs a number of driver’s license checkpoints throughout the city. Many people have questioned the legality of such checkpoints on our Facebook page, so 41 Action News asked KCPD Sgt. Chris Bentch some of your questions.

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What happens at a driver’s license checkpoint?

Checkpoints are designed to look like a construction zone. A police officer will approach your car and ask to see your driver’s license. Once you show the officer your license, you are free to go. Officers will not run a check on your license as long as you produce a valid one, according to Bentch.

If you don’t show your driver’s license, officers will run a background check on you. If they see you have a valid license but weren’t able to display it (e.g., you left it at home), then you’ll receive a ticket and will be allowed to go. If officers see that you are driving on a suspended or revoked license, or if you have no history of owning a license, then you will be arrested.

During a driver’s license checkpoint on July 9, officers stopped 1,099 cars over a five-hour period and arrested 21 people for not having a license. They also arrested 18 people who had city warrants out for their arrests, Bentch said.

Shouldn’t the Fourth Amendment protect me from police checkpoints?

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects people against unlawful search and seizures, but the Supreme Court ruled certain checkpoints are legal as long as all cars that pass through the checkpoint are stopped and treated equally.

Three types of checkpoints that are legal are driver’s license, DUI and immigration checkpoints.

Checkpoints have to be set up like a roadblock and must stop every car that passes through it. The checks must also be quick for motorists.

Police officers, however, are not allowed to stop you without reason outside of such roadblocks. In the 1979 case Delaware v. Plouse, the Supreme Court ruled that an officer violated a man’s Fourth Amendment rights when he pulled the man over for a license check and then arrested him when he noticed marijuana on the car floor. According to the case, the officer said that he had not observed the man make any traffic violations or be involved in any suspicious activity and only made the man stop to check his driver’s license.

What is the purpose of these checkpoints?

The purpose of the checkpoints is to help keep the roads safe by seeing if someone is supposed to be on the road or not. According to Bentch, many road accidents and deaths have been caused by people who were driving on a suspended or revoked license.

Shouldn’t the police be out solving crimes rather than making me stop at checkpoints?

All officers at checkpoints are working overtime, according to Bentch. None of the officers currently on duty will take part, so it doesn’t tie up resources.

Are my tax dollars being spent on these checkpoints?

No. All checkpoints are funded through grant money. 

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