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Court rules motorcycle helmet traps Constitutionally OK

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“Let those who ride decide” is the frequently-heard cry when the topic of mandatory helmets for motorcyclists comes up. In the Empire State, the decision is made for them and a federal court just proclaimed a controversial police enforcement tactic is indeed legal. New York is one of 19 states that requires head protection, and the New York State Police are serious about enforcing that law. Troopers regularly conduct bike helmet roadblocks, watching for riders with the wind in their hair and pulling them over, sometimes en masse. Several aggrieved and previously ticketed motorcyclists sued the State Police claiming the helmet checkpoints violated their Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

“We disagree,” said the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the roadblock tactic is not an illegal search because the courts have created a special need exemption allowing roadblocks that serve a particular government need, in this case, the need for motorcycle safety. New York State attorneys showed the court data on motorcycle fatalities, noting that the number of deaths decreased by 17 percent in the same year police increased the number of helmet tickets they wrote by 2,175 percent. That showed causation, the justices decided, and also showed the primary purpose of the roadblocks is safety.

The roadblocks began in October 2007 and the first one was set up on Interstate 84 specifically to catch motorcyclists returning from a rally across the border in Connecticut. Troopers posted a sign ordering all motorcyclists to get off at a rest stop, and about 280 motorcycles were herded into the parking area. Bikes were closely inspected and police wrote 104 tickets, most for helmet law violations. It was two other roadblocks in June 2008 that triggered the lawsuit. One biker was detained for 45 minutes, and the following week, two others were held for a half-hour. A trial court ruled that the state’s need to preserve driver safety outweighed the interference with individual liberty. The appeals court agreed and upheld the dismissal, saying the state showed that the safety roadblocks work and do not unreasonably deprive riders of their Constitutional rights.

Source:, “Federal appeals court upholds motorcycle roadblock,” Dec. 7, 2012

By: Howard Raphaelson

Howard A. Raphaelson founded Raphaelson & Levine Law Firm, P.C. in 1992 after graduating from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Established in New York, NY, his personal injury law firm has obtained numerous million-dollar verdicts. With over twenty-five years of experience as a personal injury attorney, he has earned a trusted reputation from his peers, judges, and top leaders, including recognition among the top 5% injury attorneys as a “Super Lawyer” (Thomson Reuters) and “New York’s Best Lawyers” (New York Magazine). View all posts by Howard Raphaelson

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