On Thursday, the Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously found the use of roadblocks to check identification papers, driving licenses and automobile registrations to be unconstitutional. The court struck down a Chattanooga Housing Authority (CHA) "residency" checkpoint at Poss Homes on 2409 Washington Street. The authority, which has its own police force, claimed the stops would protect residents from crime and illicit drug use by turning away non-residents.

CHA Police Officer Ralph Brown had stopped Jerry W. Hayes, Jr. at 6:30pm on August 13, 2002, asking him if he was a resident and if he had his papers. Hayes produces his driver's license which had been suspended because of an overdue fine. Brown also noticed unopened bottles of beer in the car and charged Hayes with possession of alcohol because, at the time, Hayes was just two months short of twenty-one.

The high court overturned Hayes' conviction because it did not believe, contrary to police claims, that the primary purpose of the checkpoint was safety. The evidence showed the roadblocks were successful instead at issuing expensive tickets.

"There are elements of subterfuge evident in the operation of this entry identification checkpoint," the court wrote. "If the checkpoint was being operated solely to establish a legitimate connection between the would-be entrant and the community, however, Officer Brown had no reason to 'also' demand the person's driver's license if he or she had already produced a Poss Homes identification badge... Because persons may legitimately drive vehicles belonging to others, however, a vehicle registration document is of questionable value in determining the identity of the driver. Proof of insurance is relevant to nothing other than determining compliance with the provisions of Tennessee Code Annotated chapter twelve."

The court saw no evidence that the checkpoint increased the safety of residents, nor that the crime was solely being conducted by "outsiders." Because the police had no list of residents or guests, there was no real way to tell from a driver's license whether any stopped individual belonged in the complex or not.

"In their zeal to preserve and protect, however, our police officers must respect the fundamental constitutional rights of those they are sworn to serve," the court concluded. "Entry identification checkpoints of the type used here result in the abrogation of one of those fundamental constitutional rights. Such checkpoints cannot, therefore, be countenanced, no matter how lofty their goals. The ends, in this case, simply do not justify the means."

A full copy of the court decision is available in a 73k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Tennessee v. Hayes (Supreme Court of Tennessee, 4/20/2006)