Federal Judge Upholds NY Motorcycle Checkpoints

In a decision with nationwide implications, a federal judge has rejected New York motorcyclists’ claims that their constitutional rights were violated when New York State Police stopped thousands of riders and ticketed many of them at motorcycle-only highway checkpoints.

Checkpoints like this may be a common sight next year, now that a federal judge has ruled that motorcycle-only checkpoints are constitutional.

Four motorcyclists sued, claiming the checkpoints, timed to coincide with rallies that draw large crowds of bikers, such as Americade, were intrusive and unfair to riders as a group. In his decision, Judge Gary Sharpe concluded that the main focus of the 2008 statewide initiative was safety. 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.” The riders’ attorney, Mitchell Proner, said he will appeal.

“The intrusion on civil liberties is something that shouldn’t be countenanced,” Proner said. Though some other states have similar checkpoint programs, the New York case was the only such federal suit nationally.

According to Sharpe’s ruling, 5,342 vehicles passed through 17 checkpoints. Authorities inspected 2,278, and made four criminal arrests. Troopers issued 1,064 tickets, including 365 for helmet violations, 99 for other safety violations, and 600 for non-safety violations. Sharpe’s ruling also cited data showing 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.

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, Proner claimed.

“It’s obvious just from their own internal documents they’re looking for criminal activity,” he said.

Lt. James Halvorsen, detail commander of the state police motorcycle unit, denied Proner’s assertion, saying most riders with approved helmets are waved through the checkpoints and, if other police were present at the checkpoints, that presence wasn’t coordinated with the troopers’ program.

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