Motorcycle Checkpoints Upheld in New York State And That's Just Plain Wrong

A federal judge has sided with the New York State Police and denied  the contention of motorcyclists that their constitutional rights are being violated by New York State Police highway checkpoints which stopped thousands of riders and ticketed them.

The checkpoint stops were part of a 2008 statewide initiative by troopers, timed to coincide with rallies like Laconia which draw crowds of riders. According to Judge Gary Sharpe, it was all about safety. Sharpe said  the checkpoints differed from random stops which had “a general interest in crime control.”

Four motorcyclists sued troopers claiming safety was nothing more than a pretext the authorities used to look for criminals. They added that the practice of motorcycle only stops was intrusive and unfair to riders as a group. Attorney Mitchell Proner said the case he worked on for the riders is the only such federal suit nationally.

Judge  Sharpe’s Thursday ruling noted that 5,342 vehicles passed through 17 checkpoints in 2008 and during those stops, authorities inspected 2,278 bikes and made a total of four criminal arrests. Some 1,064 tickets, including 365 for helmet violations, 99 for other safety violations, and 600 for non-safety violations, were issued as a direct result of the stops.

The ruling said state data showed 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, was motivation for the stops. Almost half of the total tickets from such violations were issued at the checkpoints.

“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,” wrote Sharpe in his decision.

Sharpe said the checkpoints gave police “appropriately” limited powers and was “minimally intrusive” to riders. Depositions in the case  showed riders were detained  45 minutes at the most –  even when “secondary inspections” were performed and riders were cited for inadequate helmets.

“The intrusion on civil liberties is something that shouldn’t be countenanced,” Proner 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 was manned by border patrol agents –  and at one rally in central New York sponsored by a motorcycle club,  gang task force officers manned the checkpoints.

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

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