There has been quite the buzz recently about roadblocks in the State of Iowa. Just this past weekend there was one on Merle Hay Road in Des Moines, and the previous weekend attendees of the Iowa vs. Iowa State game were greeted with one as they left the game on Melrose Avenue in Iowa City.
Roadblocks, or "safety checkpoints", tend to strike up considerable controversy, primarily because they are seen as interfering with the motoring public's freedom to be free from unreasonable government searches and seizures. Anytime a vehicle is pulled over or stopped by the police, the occupants of that vehicle have been "seized," meaning they are not free to go on about their normal activities. Ordinarily a "seizure" by law enforcement must be supported by a sufficient basis for the officer to believe the individual has committed a crime. If there is not a sufficient suspicion than the "seizure" violates the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and any evidence obtained as a result of that violation is thrown out of court.
Roadblocks, on the other-hand, result in people being "seized" without any suspicion whatsoever. They may be completely innocent, or in some circumstances, evidence may surface showing that they had committed some sort of criminal offense. Nonetheless the constitutional requirement of suspicion is set aside in favor of the "public's" interest in ensuring compliance with traffic safety regulations. This practice has been approved by both the United States Supreme Court (See Michigan Dep't of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990)) as has the Iowa Supreme Court (See State v. Hilleshiem, 291 N.W.2d 314 (Iowa 1980). However, roadblocks are not without limitations. It is important for the general public to know what is required for a roadblock to be legal in the State of Iowa.
Iowa Code section 321K.1 governs roadblocks conducted by law enforcement agencies. It authorizes roadblocks for emergency situations in response to immediate threats to the health, safety and welfare of the public (murder suspect on the lose, escaped convict, etc.) and also routine roadblocks to "enforce compliance with the law regarding:" (a) Licensing of operators of motor vehicles; (b) registration of motor vehicles; (c) safety equipment required on motor vehicles; and (d) trucking regulations. All "routine" roadblocks must meet the following requirements:
1. The location, the time and the procedure to be used must be determined by policymaking administrative officers of the law enforcement agency;
2. The location must be selected for its safety and visibility to oncoming motorists, and adequate advance warning sings, that must be illuminated at night or other poor visibility conditions are required;
3. There must be uniformed officers and marked official vehicles of the law enforcement agency or agencies involved;
4. The selection of motor vehicles to be stopped may not be arbitrary. There must be a set determination as to what vehicles will be stopped, for example, every 5th vehicle.
5. It must minimize inconvenience to the motoring public.
If any of the requirements are not met, the roadblock is illegal and anybody charged with a criminal offense as a result of the roadblock may be able to successfully have their case dismissed. Thus, it is important to be as attentive as possible when entering a roadblock because what is, and more importantly, what is not, present may be the difference between ones liberty and freedom.
It is important to remember that even if you find yourself caught in a roadblock web, you still have rights under the law. While no doubt and intimidating environment surrounded by a multitude of law enforcement officers, calmly and politely exercising ones rights in this situation can often times be the best defense.