In 2007, the New York State Police began using federal taxpayer grant money to target these motorcyclists with the stated objective “to detect motorcycle safety violations and ensure proper registration and operator compliance with New York State’s motorcycle license requirements.
The first roadblock was set up on October 7, 2007 to hit participants returning from a motorcycle rally nearby in Connecticut. Signs were posted on Interstate 84 ordering motorcycle riders to “exit ahead” while a uniformed police officer directed traffic into a rest area. From there, a total of 280 motorcyclists were detained and forced to undergo “full-blown inspections” that generated 104 traffic tickets. The most common citation was for improper helmet.
In 2008, a total of 17 roadblocks were held, detaining 2278 motorcyclists who were issued 600 tickets for infractions that had nothing to do with safety. Another 365 citations were issued for use of an unapproved helmet. Several detained bikers sued the state police after they were detained 45 minutes or more.
US District Court Judge Gary L. Sharpe had rejected the motorcyclists’ argument that the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures applied to this case. To get around the constitutional need for individualized suspicion of wrongdoing before a seizure, courts have created a “special needs” doctrine that allows roadblock programs serving a particular government need. Here, the state produced statistics that showed motorcycle fatalities dropped 17 percent in the same year that motorcycle helmet ticketing increased 2175 percent, and Judge Sharpe agreed this was proof that the roadblock’s primary purpose was safety. Courts then must balance whether the government need to enhance safety is greater than the interference with individual liberty. The appellate judges agreed with the lower court’s analysis that it was.
“Applying this balancing test, we conclude that the well catalogued public interest in highway safety is well served by the safety checkpoint program and outweighs the interference with individual liberty in this case,” the second circuit ruled in a brief, summary opinion. “Accordingly, the district court did not err in concluding that there was no constitutional violation.” A copy of the summary order of November 29, 2012 is available by following this LINK.