WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that police can stop drivers simply to seek information about a crime, a decision that gives law enforcement greater power to set up roadblocks even if they are not in immediate pursuit of the suspect.
Reversing a decision by the Illinois Supreme Court, the justices ruled 6-3 that a roadblock set up by police in west suburban Lombard, Ill., did not violate the rights of a driver subsequently arrested and convicted of driving under the influence.
Police came upon the intoxicated driver at a roadblock intended to find information about a fatal hit-and-run accident that had occurred the week before.
Ruling that the "brief, information-seeking highway stop" was constitutional, the court said such checkpoints could serve an important public interest in solving serious crimes and were only minimally intrusive to motorists' rights.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan called the decision a "significant one" that would allow law enforcement in Illinois and across the country to seek "voluntary assistance from citizens in their efforts to solve crime."
"We are very pleased the court accepted our position that informational checkpoints are a constitutionally legitimate police tool that will help protect the public," Madigan said.
But some criminal defense lawyers criticized the court's decision as further whittling away the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
They said it reflected increased tolerance, in the courts and by the public at large, of more intrusive police activity since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"To some extent, what we're seeing is that 9/11 changed the landscape with respect to our expectations of privacy," said Gerry Goldstein, a past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"We're seeing a steady encroachment into what citizens can expect with respect to the right to be left alone."
Lawyers for defendant Robert Lidster argued that the Lombard roadblock cast too broad a net and could have revealed that any motorist had committed some crime.
They said it was similar to an Indianapolis police roadblock that sought to ferret out evidence of drug trafficking by drivers, which the court declared unconstitutional in 2000.
But the justices, rejecting those Fourth Amendment concerns, said the roadblock in Lombard was not designed to apprehend the occupants of a vehicle but instead was seeking information about other individuals.
"The stop's primary law enforcement purpose was not to determine whether a vehicle's occupants were committing a crime, but to ask vehicle occupants, as members of the public, for their help in providing information about a crime in all likelihood committed by others," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority.
When they came upon a crime, driving under the influence, even though they weren't looking for it, it was not a violation for them to arrest the driver, the court concluded.
In a separate case yesterday, the court heard arguments in a lawsuit brought by George Lane, a disabled Tennessee man who said he was subjected to humiliating treatment when he was made to crawl up stairs at a county courthouse for an appearance in a reckless driving case.
The court is considering the scope of protection offered to people like Lane under the landmark 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.
In previous cases, the high court has repeatedly limited the effect of the ADA. At issue now is the right of private citizens to sue over alleged violations such as the lack of an elevator in the small-town courthouse where Lane was scheduled to appear in 1996.
"An elevator to a person with disabilities is like the stairs to me," lawyer William J. Brown told the justices. "It's the way I get there."
Brown's client wants to sue the state of Tennessee for up to $100,000 for what he claimed was humiliating treatment that violated the ADA.
Lane crawled up the Polk County courthouse steps once for an appearance in a reckless driving case, but was arrested for failing to appear in court when he refused to crawl a second time.
Courthouse employees say he also refused offers of help.
Tennessee does not dispute that the courthouse lacked an elevator, or that the state has a duty to make its services available to all.
Tennessee Solicitor General Michael E. Moore argued, however, that Lane's constitutional rights were not violated and that he has no right to take the state to court.
Outside the court yesterday, protesters chanted, "Justice for all, we won't crawl."
Then a disabled woman set aside her wheelchair and clambered up the steps and crawled across the court plaza, joined by a handful of supporters. She was stopped at the steps of the court building by about 10 court officers.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.