The Huntersville Police Department (“HPD”) conducted a general traffic roadside safety check on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017 from 10-11am on Verhoeff Drive near Seay Drive. I was made aware of this checkpoint after I spoke with a resident who was stopped while driving their two kids to swim at HFFA and had their car searched by HPD. I don’t normally travel through that part of town mid-morning during the week so I was curious why HPD would decide to set up a checkpoint on Verhoeff Dr. for just one hour during the middle of a workday – almost as if it was just a spontaneous decision. Was this checkpoint reasonable and is this really the best use of HPD resources?
North Carolina law is pretty clear on checkpoints (see NCGS § 20-16.3A) so I sent a request on March 12 to the town and HPD for more information. I requested HPD provide records or information related to: HPD’s written checkpoint policy; number of officers and the duration of the checkpoint; any report resulting from the checkpoint including any citations or tickets; the most recent time a checkpoint was conducted at this location prior to Feb. 28; and the primary programmatic purpose of the checkpoint. Huntersville Police Chief Cleveland Spruill promptly responded to my request on March 13 and provided the information below.
From Chief Spruill’s response, we learned that HPD is in compliance with NC law by having a written checkpoint policy as well as a written authorization form outlining the checkpoint plan that must be completed prior to conducting a checkpoint. According to the resident I spoke with who was stopped, HPD also complied with NC law by having a least one vehicle at the checkpoint with its blue lights in operation; however, the resident thought they were approaching a crash site because there were no other indications a checkpoint was ahead. We also learned only three citations were issued during the hour-long checkpoint – although I don’t yet know if all three citations were issued to the same driver. [Interestingly, these citations did not appear in the police blotter in the Herald Weekly for the week of Feb. 28, nor do these citations appear in a search of HPD’s RAIDS online program.] I am still waiting on a response to the subsequent request I sent to HPD on March 15 for copies of any incident reports related to the three citations issued. And I am also still waiting for a response to my questions about why “other” was selected under the planning checklist for how the Communications Center was notified and when was the most recent date/time HPD conducted a checkpoint at this location.
Even though it appears HPD complied with the basic requirements of NCGS §20-16.3A on Feb. 28, an NC court reviewing this checkpoint would still have to determine the reasonableness of the checkpoint. Shea Denning at the UNC School of Government wrote a blog post in 2015 summarizing a recent NC case dealing with the reasonableness of checkpoints. (If you’re really interested in NC checkpoint law, Jeff Welty’s more thorough checkpoint paper can be read here.) Many people would argue it’s never reasonable for law enforcement to stop law abiding citizens without a warrant and without any reasonable suspicion, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled otherwise. HPD would likely argue the checkpoint was reasonable because it resulted in three citations being issued and did not significantly impact traffic. I would like to know whether elected officials in Huntersville think issuing three citations (two of which were for minor moving violations) is sufficient justification for violating the liberty of the individuals who were stopped and questioned without a warrant and without reasonable suspicion and were not issued citations?
The resident I spoke with who was stopped provided some additional details about their experience. After being asked to provide their license (but not their registration), the HPD officer at their driver’s side window noticed two young children in the back seat and asked for consent to check the car seats. The resident hesitantly gave consent and then before they realized what was happening two different officers opened both the passenger and driver’s side rear doors and began inspecting the car seats and shoulder/lap restraints startling the two young children who had no idea what was taking place or who these strange adults were. The resident was eventually allowed to leave the checkpoint after being detained for a few minutes, but only after being chided by one officer and advised that the resident should attend one of HPD’s upcoming car seat safety checking stations – even though both children were properly restrained. [HPD has been conducting these car seat safety checks for the last year or so in partnership with the Huntersville Fire Department, Inc. and Safe Kids CharMeck.] Is this really the kind of interaction HPD wants to have with law abiding residents just trying to go about their already busy day?
An aside – if asked for consent by law enforcement to search your vehicle or residence, you can and should ALWAYS decline consent for any search. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people (even criminals who knowingly have contraband in their car or residence) still give consent to search for many different reasons, but you do have the right to just say no.
When most people read about checkpoints in the paper they’re reading about late-night checkpoints resulting in arrests for DUI and drug offenses, not mid-morning checkpoints on a minor thoroughfare in Huntersville. Then again, if HPD considers this type of mid-morning checkpoint stopping law abiding residents going about their busy day to not only be reasonable, but an efficient use of resources, maybe we should all get used to the idea of being stopped for general traffic roadside safety checks during the middle of our busy workdays in Huntersville.