The Check(point) Stops Here!
By Kevin Longrie
ABATE of California, a group dedicated to motorcyclists’ rights, is pushing forward a bill that would ban state and federal funding for motorcycle-only checkpoints—something the group says are discriminatory and unconstitutional. Kevin Jefferies, vice chairman of the state Assembly Transportation Committee, drafted the original checkpoint legislation, AB 1047, which was designed to identify and correct possible safety hazards on California motorcycles.
Gill Mellen, member of the board of directors and the state public relations officer for ABATE, says he is not convinced that safety is law enforcement’s top priority.
“They write all these silly little tickets in the name of safety, and basically all they’re doing is profiling motorcycles and harassing bikers and they’re not accomplishing any safety,” he tells the Weekly.
Mellen’s answer is in lockstep with the persecution narrative ABATE believes itself to be a part of. On its website, it says that its counter-legislation, if successful, “will be a major victory for motorcycle riders, who are being singled out for profiling.”
AB 1047 is not unique legislation. Similar motorcycle-targeted bills are being fought by bikers’ rights groups across the country. In New York, a similar battle has gone to the courts—Wagner et al. v. The County of Schenectady, NY et al.—with the plaintiffs arguing the unconstitutionality of motorcycle-only checkpoints. Some have suggested that the case is on track to be heard by the Supreme Court, though at this point, that is little more than conjecture.
The constitutional question is a strong one. The Fourth Amendment protects U.S. citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The argument then falls on either side of what constitutes reasonable or unreasonable action on the part of law enforcement; what, as the amendment states, provides “probable cause”?
It’s up to the state legislature to decide whether it can be legally assumed that a motorcyclist is a higher risk to himself and to others than the average driver of a passenger vehicle. They must also determine if motorcyclists present a special case when it comes to safety malfeasance.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined that about 12 percent of car drivers killed in crash in 2008 were operating the vehicle with an invalid license. That number for motorcyclists is closer to one in four.
Mellen believes that what the state is calling safety measures are little more than ways of profiling bikers and finding reasons to write them tickets. “That’s not motorcycle safety,” he says. “What we want them to do is to take the money they get from the cities and set up a safety program of some sort or put the money into CMSP [California Motorcyclist Safety Program].”
But for as adamant as Mellen is about “funnel[ing the money] into a safety program,” neither he nor ABATE as an entity have been very specific about how to redirect the state funds. Their call for safety programs carries with it the same vague outline and even the same wording as the safety checkpoints that law enforcement have been struggling to maintain.
Safety is the justification used by both the state legislature and ABATE, but the actual goal of neither. The state uses checkpoints to look for safety violations, but also to check for stolen bikes and other illegal activity for which it may have no probable cause. ABATE is fully supporting AB 695, a bill which would repeal the mandatory helmet law.
“We need to make the general public more aware of motorcycle safety,” Mellen states. The state legislature will decide sometime this month how exactly, whether through driver’s education or motorcycle-only checkpoints, they mean to go about hitting that target.