Justice Anderson skeptical of driver licenses as safety guarantees

Late chief Tennessee justice E. Riley Anderson

The Tennessee Supreme Court appears unconvinced of the value of driver licenses in guaranteeing the safe use of the roads. This skepticism is expressed in the 2001 Chattanooga-area roadblock case, State v. Hicks. No. E1999-00957-SC-R11-CV, which reinforces the court’s control over roadblocks as an exception to the state constitution’s ban on warrantless searches and seizures.

By David Tulis / NoogaRadio 92.7 FM

Says late chief justice E. Riley Anderson, in a concurring opinion

[T]he State asserts the general argument that drivers’ license roadblocks, like sobriety roadblocks, serve the public interest of maintaining highway safety. The dissent likewise theorizes that such roadblocks serve a “critical interest in protecting its citizens from drivers who are either not qualified to drive or have been forbidden to drive because of a record of driving offenses.” Neither the State nor the dissent offer or cite to any empirical evidence, anecdotal evidence, or even persuasive argument in support of their assertions. In my view, there is no basis upon which to reasonably conclude that a motorist who is not in possession of a valid drivers’ license necessarily poses an immediate danger of death or serious bodily injury great enough to warrant the suspicionless stop of all drivers at a checkpoint. Indeed, even the possession of a valid drivers’ license does not necessarily assure the safety and fitness of any motorist. In Tennessee, for example, motorists who obtain a drivers’ license at the age of 16 may never again during their lifetimes be tested or examined to ensure their continued skill and fitness. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-50-322 (1998 & Supp. 2000). In short, the present case is easily distinguishable from the sobriety checkpoints at issue in Downey. The State has presented no empirical evidence, anecdotal evidence, or persuasive argument that would demonstrate that the public interest served by drivers’ license roadblocks even remotely approaches that served by sobriety roadblocks. [Emphasis added]

The Tennessee bill of rights at article 7 says the following about searches and seizures: 

That the people shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers and possessions, from unreasonable searches and seizures; and that general warrants, whereby an officer may be commanded to search suspected places, without evidence of the fact committed, or to seize any person or persons not named, whose offences are not particularly described and supported by evidence, are dangerous to liberty and ought not be granted.

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