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In Victory for Privacy Rights, ACLU of Utah Informs Salt Lake County Sheriff of Legal Limitations on Vehicle Checkpoints

12 May 2003 Published in Legal Advocacy

Letter to Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard regarding vehicle checkpoints and the recently decided case Utah v. Abell.

Read the Letter Below >>

Letter Regarding Vehicle Checkpoints

By U.S. Mail and Facsimile

May 12, 2003

Aaron D. Kennard
Salt Lake County Sheriff
3365 South 900 West
Salt Lake City, UT 84119

Dear Sheriff Kennard,

As Memorial Day weekend approaches, the ACLU of Utah would like to take this opportunity to inform you of a recently decided Utah State Supreme Court Case limiting the discretion afforded to officers during administrative vehicle checkpoints. In Utah v. Abell, Case number 20001092, decided May 9, 2003, the court found that administrative vehicle checkpoints that vest broad discretion in officers on the scene to operate and decide how to treat each car that is detained, violate the Utah State Constitution. The Court stated:

"[H]ighway checkpoints are an extremely narrow exception to the general rule that reasonable suspicion is required before police are allowed to detain citizens, question them, and inspect their vehicles. We permit checkpoints in order to advance the singular purpose of promoting the safe use of highways. Each element of the checkpoint plan must be narrowly tailored to serve this limited interest alone. We see no justification for allowing the state to use the interest in enforcing the drivers license requirement as the predicate for permitting officers to conduct investigations for which they would otherwise need a warrant, probable cause, or reasonable suspicion. For these reasons, multiple purpose checkpoints that permit numerous independent checks related to one another only through their loose connection to the operation of a vehicle on the highway are constitutionally infirm."

As I am sure your aware, Utah Code §77-23-104 requires written authority from a magistrate to conduct an administrative traffic checkpoint. Among other requirements, §77-23-104(2)(c)(iv) states that the written plan for the administrative traffic checkpoint must be “distinguishable by the magistrate from a general interest in crime control.” The Utah Supreme Court in Abell instructs magistrates reviewing the checkpoint plan to “critically consider whether the checkpoint plan’s legitimate purposes are closely tied to the use and safety of the highway, and not to other law enforcement interests.” Further, the Court instructed that the “magistrate must be careful to consider whether the checkpoint plan provides for the regularized, systematic detention of vehicles so that all who are stopped will be treated in the same manner to the greatest degree possible.”

The Supreme Court of the United States has also found similar checkpoints for drug related activities unconstitutional violations of the Fourth Amendment where the checkpoints were not justified by severe and intractable nature of the drug problem, checkpoints could not be rationalized in terms of highway safety or by its secondary purpose of keeping impaired motorists off the road, and where the difficulty in examining each passing car did not justify suspicionless searches or seizures. City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000).

We write this letter to further a mutual understanding on the legality of administrative vehicle checkpoints and to prevent unnecessary litigation concerning checkpoints set up during upcoming holiday weekends. Each year our office receives several complaints concerning the nature of vehicle checkpoints set up over holiday weekends by the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s office. We urge you to read the recently decided Abell case and instruct your officers on the legal parameters of administrative vehicle checkpoints.


Janelle P. Eurick
Staff Attorney

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