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Back to Archives | Back to January 2005 Contents 

Chief's Counsel

Chief's Counsel: Using Roadblocks to Apprehend Suspects

By John M. Collins, General Counsel, Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, Collins & Weinberg, Shrewsbury, Massachusetts

fter a shooting, or in situations involving other crimes where the police are attempting to apprehend fleeing, dangerous persons, they may set up a roadblock along routes likely to be taken by such suspects. The usual rules requiring particularized suspicion before stopping a motor vehicle will not apply in such cases.

An emergency stop of numerous vehicles aimed at apprehending a fleeing, dangerous suspect requires a somewhat different constitutional analysis from a planned, blueprinted roadblock at a determined location, such as a sobriety checkpoint or a drug interdiction roadblock.

In a case involving an emergency roadblock aimed at apprehending a fleeing, dangerous suspect, where there is no particularized suspicion, the relevant constitutional analysis is whether the seizure is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. In determining reasonableness, courts will often attempt to balance the public interest against the individual's right to personal security free from arbitrary interference by law enforcement officials.

Court decisions use the word "roadblock" with caution, noting that the emergency police action in such cases appear facially as a roadblock but occur in substantially different circumstances from the planned sobriety and drug interdiction roadblocks.

Constitutional Issues
It is well established that a seizure occurs under the Fourth Amendment whenever a motor vehicle is stopped by an agent of government.1 As the Supreme Court noted in Whren v. United States, the "temporary detention of individuals during the stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a 'seizure' of 'persons' under the Fourth Amendment."2 Generally, searches and seizures must be conducted pursuant to a warrant based on probable cause. Where obtaining a warrant is not practical, searches and seizures may be proper if probable cause or reasonable suspicion exists.3

Ordinarily, "law enforcement officers must possess at least articulable suspicion before stopping a vehicle."4 There are, however, limited exceptions to the requirement that seizures be based on probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Under the Fourth Amendment, roadblocks to apprehend fleeing, dangerous suspects may be among the limited public safety intrusions permitted law enforcement officers who do not possess "articulable suspicion" to stop a particular vehicle.5 Whether this analysis is called a "limited exception" or a balancing test, courts are inclined to treat cases that involve a roadblock set up after a shooting aimed at catching the perpetrator as not requiring particularized suspicion.

Courts are likely to view an emergency stop of numerous vehicles aimed at apprehending a fleeing, dangerous suspect as requiring a somewhat different constitutional analysis from a planned, blueprinted roadblock at a determined location, such as a sobriety checkpoint or a drug interdiction roadblock. In the 2000 case of Indianapolis v. Edmond, the Supreme Court, considering a planned roadblock, and emphasizing that it had never approved a checkpoint program "whose primary purpose was to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing," acknowledged the existence of "limited exceptions to the general rule that a seizure must be accompanied by some measure of individualized suspicion."6 The Court stated that "there are circumstances that may justify a law enforcement checkpoint where the primary purpose would otherwise, but for some emergency, relate to ordinary crime control. For example, . . . the Fourth Amendment would almost certainly permit an appropriately tailored roadblock set up . . . to catch a dangerous criminal who is likely to flee by way of a particular route."7

The Fourth Circuit has also held, applying a "reasonableness" analysis, that a roadblock, established for the purpose of apprehending suspects fleeing along the only access road leading from the site of a planned drug raid, was permissible under the Fourth Amendment.8 The court there emphasized that the purpose of the stops was to arrest suspects for a known crime, not to discover evidence of undetected crimes, and stated that "[b]y virtue of the exigency of fleeing, perhaps dangerous, suspects, we think the stops of all persons found on a likely access route to the scene of the crime was reasonable, both in its purpose and the manner in which it was conducted" (emphasis supplied).9

In situations where the police have good reason to believe that one or more dangerous persons are fleeing the scene of a recent crime, especially where a firearm, if not an actual shooting, is involved, the police may set up one or more roadblocks in an effort to identify and apprehend the perpetrators. The location of such roadblocks must be reasonably related to the probable escape routes the alleged perpetrators may be taking. The manner of conducting the stops should be reasonable and limited in terms of motorist inconvenience. The courts have not set a limit on the duration of such stops; however, if they become unreasonably long, the court may rule that they violate the constitutional standards and disallow any evidence seized, for example. Although an arrest is likely to be upheld, a civil rights suit for damages is possible under 42 U.S.C. 1983.

Although the courts have not yet required this, it is strongly recommended that officers notify their supervisor and, if practicable, secure permission to establish a roadblock. The supervisor should also periodically monitor how the roadblock is progressing and determine when and how it will be modified or abandoned. ■      

1 Commonwealth v. Rodriguez, 430 Mass. 577, 579, 722 N.E.2d 429 (2000).
2 Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-810, 116 S. Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996).
3 Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 51, 90 S. Ct. 1975, 26 L.Ed.2d 419 (1970).
4 United States v. Huguenin, 154 F.3d 547, 553 (6th Cir.1998).
5 United States v. Harper, 617 F.2d 35, 40- 41 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 887, 101 S. Ct. 243, 66 L.Ed.2d 113 (1980).
6 Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 41, 121 S. Ct. 447, 148 L.Ed.2d 333 (2000).
7 Id. at 44, 121 S. Ct. 447.
8 See United States v. Harper, 617 F.2d at 40-41.
9 Id. at 41.



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 1, January 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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