Laws of North Carolina that need to change, Part 4 – Random Checkpoints

Time to take a short break from guns.


Today’s hobbyhorse is North Carolina General Statute 20-16.3a, which gives police agencies the power to conduct random checkpoints. Now it may surprise you that in modern America, the local gendarmes can throw up a roadblock on any random road and start demanding “Papers, Please.” I think they use the please simply to confuse you. Make no mistake, it isn’t a request and refusal will land you in a heap of trouble.

I learned about the checkpoints the hard way. It was the weekend here just south of Raleigh and I was driving my truck, bicycle in the back, off to a local park for a morning bike ride. To be fair, the police officer didn’t actually sound like Sgt Schultz. He seemed confused that I would object to his eminently reasonable request that I provide to him a government issued permission slip that authorized me to use the public highways.

Typically, police are required to have Reasonably Articulable Suspicion or RAS in order to conduct a Terry Stop, which is a brief investigatory detention to determine if a crime is, was, or is about to be committed. In simple English, the cops need to have a reason to hassle you. They can’t just pull you over for the hell of it.

The Supreme Court decided in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz that it was ok to pull people over at a DUI checkpoint if the criteria were neutral, say every third car. The issue is, that was for drunk checks, not license checks. In City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, the Supreme Court decided that checkpoints whose “whose primary purpose” is “to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing”. Driving without a driver’s license is ordinary criminal wrongdoing, and is not the special case of drunk driving. In my case, I called the local police and asked the Lieutenant in charge of the Traffic division if it was Traffic Division that was conducting the stops. It was not. That tells me that they were looking for ordinary criminal wrongdoing. I doubt that they were looking for drunks at 9am on a Saturday.

Aside from the legalities and inferences of Constitutional Law (Penumbras and Emanations and all that) we should consider the propriety of it all. Why should we be subjected to a uniformed agent of the State demanding our papers in the middle of the road? We should demand that all police stops be based on individualized suspicion. If the cop doesn’t have a good reason to bother me, he should be required by law to leave me alone.

2 responses to “Laws of North Carolina that need to change, Part 4 – Random Checkpoints

  1. What ever happened to Deleware v. Prouse 440 U.S. 648 (1979)?

    Except where there is at least articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed or that an automobile is unregistered, or that either the vehicle or an occupant is otherwise subject to seizure for violation of law, stopping any automobile and detaining the driver in order to check his driver’s license and the registration of the automobile are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

  2. @Anon: I have no idea. I would have thought that covered it, but apparently the NC police think differently.