Federal judge upholds state police motorcycle checkpoints

A federal judge has rejected motorcyclists’ claims that their constitutional rights were violated by

A federal judge has rejected motorcyclists’ claims that their constitutional rights were violated by New York State Police highway checkpoints that stopped thousands of riders and ticketed many of them.

The main focus of the 2008 statewide initiative by troopers, timed to coincide with rallies drawing crowds of riders, including those in Cobleskill and Lake George, was safety, Judge Gary Sharpe concluded. That distinguishes the checkpoints from “a general interest in crime control” that could have amounted to unconstitutional seizures when there’s no “individualized suspicion of wrongdoing.”

Four motorcyclists sued troopers claiming safety was a mere pretext in looking for criminals and that the practice was intrusive and unfair to riders as a group. Attorney Mitchell Proner said many motorcyclists are interested in the case, the only such federal suit nationally though some other states have similar checkpoint programs, and he will appeal.

According to Sharpe’s Thursday ruling, 5,342 vehicles passed through 17 checkpoints in 2008. Authorities inspected 2,278 and made four criminal arrests in addition to issuing 1,064 tickets, including 365 for helmet violations, 99 for other safety violations, and 600 for non-safety violations.

The ruling cited state data showing an increase in motorcycle fatalities the preceding nine years, and an increase in tickets issued for illegal helmets from 35 in 2007 to 796 in 2008, almost half at the checkpoints. Sharpe also cited a 17 percent decrease in motorcycle fatalities from 2008 to 2009.

“The court concludes the checkpoints were enacted to promote motorcycle safety, a manifest public interest; they were effective in addressing this interest; and that any interference with individual liberties was not only minimal, but also grossly outweighed by the interest advanced,” Sharpe wrote.

The program gave police “appropriately” limited discretion and was “minimally intrusive,” with depositions showing bikers were detained at most 45 minutes even when they got secondary inspections and were cited for inadequate helmets, he wrote.

Lt. James Halvorsen, detail commander of the state police motorcycle unit, said the ongoing program, similar to seatbelt enforcement, succeeded in raising safety awareness. Most riders with approved helmets are waved through the checkpoints, where they slow but don’t stop, he said.

Statewide motorcycle fatalities were 188 in 2008, 155 in 2009 and 180 last year, while the peak in 2006 was 192, Halvorsen said. Whether other police showed up at the checkpoints, that wasn’t coordinated and the troopers’ program was strictly about safety, he said.

“The intrusion on civil liberties is something that shouldn’t be countenanced,” Proner said. The New York checkpoints have continued since even though motorcycles, like other vehicles, are already subject to annual safety inspections, he said.

“It’s obvious just from their own internal documents they’re looking for criminal activity,” Proner said. A checkpoint near Buffalo’s Peace Bridge included border patrol agents, and one in central New York near a rally sponsored by a motorcycle club included gang task force officers, he said.

“The fact they didn’t find crime doesn’t mean that wasn’t what they’re fishing for,” he said. “That just shows you’ve got law abiding citizens on motorcycles primarily being inconvenienced.”

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