All About Motorcycle-Only Checkpoints

Why do motorcycle-only checkpoints exist?

Some people think that motorcycle-only checkpoints came about as a result of the 2013 Alexian Lien SUV incident which began on NYC’s West Side Highway with participants of the Hollywood Stuntz Block Party ride.  No, the motorcycle-only checkpoints started many years before that.

Some think that the checkpoints have something to do with the historically bad behavior of a small handful of reckless sportbike riders.  But that doesn’t explain why the checkpoints also pull over harmless scooters and lumbering cruiser motorcycles.  The stunters and their ilk won’t stop at a checkpoint anyway.

Many others believe motorcycle-only checkpoints or roadblocks came about because there are too many motorcycle and scooter riders riding around with illegal equipment or without the proper licensing.  This is only partially correct.  Any is of course too many but a glance at the breakdown of New York’s traffic violations reveals a stunning number of automobile and truck drivers found to be lacking licenses, insurance, etc.  And that’s without the extra scrutiny that motorcyclists are experiencing.  It is difficult to prove that the number of illegal riders is disproportionate to illegal motorists.  And there is actually nothing being accomplished by harassing every motorcyclist that could not be done just as effectively at a traffic signal or stop sign someplace, picking off motorcycles and riders displaying obvious violations.

The motorcycle-only checkpoints are mostly theater.  Profitable theater.

The objective is to pull over every single motorcycle and only motorcycles, regardless of any lack of suspicion of wrongdoing, and go fishing for violations.  Usually while ignoring even the most egregious violations from passing automobile and truck drivers.

And when wherever we say “motorcycles” here that also includes scooters.  The act of riding anything with two wheels and an engine becomes probable cause for a stop.  It doesn’t matter if you’re on a little Vespa scooter, a big Harley-Davidson touring bike or anything in between.

The checkpoints are mostly for show and for federal grant money.

The birth of the MOC

The motorcycle-only checkpoints or MOCs started in 2007 as simple revenge.  In April of 2006, New York State Police Trooper Craig J. Todeschini attempted to chase down a reckless speeder on a motorcycle.  His police-issued 4WD Chevy Tahoe SUV simply wasn’t the right tool to chase down a 1000cc sportbike.  His zeal exceeded his skills and the capabilities of his equipment, and he died when he lost control of his truck and struck a tree during the chase.

Not long afterward, a law was named after the deceased NYSP Trooper that created a new category of offense called “unlawful fleeing.”  Of course fleeing was already unlawful but that’s typical politics.  Try to solve a problem by making an illegal thing more illegal.

So a law was passed prohibiting unlawful fleeing.  James Carncross, already on probation for grand larceny, was quickly apprehended, tried for and convicted of aggravated criminally negligent homicide, and sentenced to a minimum of seven years in jail for the part he played in Todeschini’s death.  You would think that would more or less be the end of it.  You would be wrong.

Response to this incident by the NYSP, which was widely acknowledged in law enforcement circles and elsewhere as categorical retaliation against motorcyclists, was fairly prompt.  Less than a year and a half after Todeschini’s death, the country’s first-ever motorcycle-only checkpoint – named “Operation 5060” in the memory and honor of Todeschini’s badge number – was conducted on I-84 in East Fishkill, New York by the NYSP and led by then- Sergeant J. Halvorsen.  This operation was a pilot – a blueprint for things to come.

Halvorsen worked in the same NYSP Troop as Todeschini and was friendly with Todeschini’s father.  At the time, Halvorsen was a motor vehicle collision reconstructionist with backgrounds in traffic enforcement, traffic safety and traffic homicide investigation.

The alleged premise of the motorcycle -only checkpoint was safety.  It was supposed to focus chiefly on things like DOT helmet enforcement, and because it supposedly was a motorcycle safety initiative, it qualified for funding by federal grants intended for motorcycle safety initiatives.  The safety initiative could be carried out without impacting local law enforcement budgets.  The federal government could foot the entire bill.  The negligible budget impact aspect of the initiative made it easy to get local politicians to approve it.

It was interesting to consider the predictions made by Halvorsen and company at the time.  They assumed that some riders would attempt to flee, so their plans included a helicopter and a high-performance Chevy Camaro at the ready, more air coverage on standby and extra on-ground coverage at the highway’s exits.

Think about this for a moment.  Have you ever seen that kind of coverage for any other kind of checkpoint for cars or trucks?  It was like a scene from Smokey and the Bandit.

The predictions turned out to be wrong of course.  280 motorcyclists were stopped in that pilot checkpoint and NONE even attempted flight.

In that checkpoint police issued a total of 104 tickets to a vague number of motorcyclists, with the most prevalent two categories of tickets being 41 for illegal helmets and a mere 7 for illegal exhaust.  Since the NYSP went out of their way not to reveal how many were issued multiple tickets we don’t really have a way to discern the number of people who had absolutely no violations.  But based on the rest of the violations it’s fair to say it was around 4/5ths of the motorcyclists who went through the checkpoint without accusation or suspicion.

We should not forget about those motorcyclists who entered the checkpoint but were waved through due to “congestion” and thus unrepresented in the NYSP’s numbers.  It is difficult to believe any riders would have been waved on past if they had displayed any obvious issues.

We also must keep in mind that of those 4/5ths or whatever, most fought their tickets successfully.  Many of the summonses were unjust, outright illegal and the judge threw them out himself without contest.  But that rather important fact wasn’t represented in the numbers fed to the public.

The NYSP’s press release about the checkpoint’s results was worded to make it seem as if nearly half of the motorcyclists encountered were offenders.  The NYSP therefore called this checkpoint a “success.”  Mission accomplished, and the cast set for the following year’s infamous Americade MOC (motorcycle-only checkpoint), and more checkpoints in the following years across the country.

MOCs across the country

The NYSP were so proud of this scheme that they – led by Halvorsen – went touring the country showing law enforcement agencies around the nation how to do it.  Halvorsen and his road show could be seen at professional and consumer shows, including the NYSP’s booth at the International Motorcycle Show for many consecutive years.

This strategy is an easy sell as it amounts to huge wins for both the law enforcement agencies and the municipalities.  Police run the checkpoints on overtime so attention to other enforcement initiatives is not compromised, the feds foot the bill so the municipality doesn’t pay for any of it, any tickets written are potential income for the local budget, cops welcome the overtime income and the visibility of the checkpoints makes the law enforcement agencies look conspicuously productive.  A novel and unfortunate side-effect of the checkpoints’ funding is that by using federal grant moneys meant for motorcycle safety programs, less money gets spent on proactive efforts like training and education, thereby guaranteeing a steady flow of potential offenders for future checkpoints.

A more insidious side-effect of the motorcycle-only checkpoints is that the theatrics of a safety zone full of cops and motorcycles and the resulting traffic delays and congestion fosters and reinforces negative feelings among motorists about motorcycle riders.  This continued marginalization of motorcycle riders by law enforcement makes it more difficult for the motorcycle community – a small minority – to fight the policies that allow the checkpoints to continue.

Fast forward about four years from the pilot to 2011 (year chosen for easy access to numbers), the ongoing “success” rates for the MOCs didn’t seem too impressive.  In checkpoints across the country, according to Halvorsen, 27,000 motorcyclists were stopped and 1665 tickets were issued.  That’s at most just 6% ticketed – if any riders had multiple tickets (not unlikely) that means it’s less than 6% of riders.  380 tickets were for non-DOT helmets and a mere 49 (0.18%) were for lack of a motorcycle endorsement.  There were only 6 DWIs.

To put that in perspective, the NYPD alone writes around 60,000 tickets every year to motorists for unlicensed operation, another 100,000 or so for lack of safety restraints, and the state overall issued over 69,000 DWI tickets in 2012.  These statistics make motorists look categorically worse than motorcyclists even when adjusted for their relative numbers.

Death by checkpoint

When we checked the motorcycle fatality numbers in 2013 it was evident that since the checkpoints began, the rate of motorcyclist deaths had increased.  Not decreased, not even held steady but INCREASED.  These motorcycle-only checkpoints had been going on for over five years and in that time, there was no tangible improvement to motorcycle fatalities.  The misappropriation of motorcycle safety funding for the MOCs was associated with an increase in motorcycle fatalities.

In 2012-2013, New York used $490,000 from federal motorcycle safety funds (USC Title 23 Section 402).  A half million taxpayer dollars spent to increase motorcyclist fatalities.

To add insult to injury, Halvorsen is now retired LEO (Lieutenant) Jim Halvorsen, and now works for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.  That smells an awful lot like the fox guarding the hen house.  Here is a blurb about a presentation he was to give in upstate New York in October of 2013:

“Contemporary Issues in Traffic Law Enforcement” includes “…concerns such as motorcycle fatalities and countermeasures to reduce them…”

The word “countermeasures” is disturbing.  Once a cop, always a cop.  It seems apparent that Halvorsen’s primary interest remains in delivering compliance through punishment.  So why is someone like him promoting his law enforcement -centric strategies through a non-profit organization – the MSF, funded by motorcycle manufacturers and distributors – that focuses on proactive strategies for improving motorcyclists’ safety?

The New York City Police Department’s checkpoints

The motorcycle-only checkpoints as they now are conducted in New York City have devolved into a pure violation of motorcyclists’ constitutional rights.  The NYSP’s pilot included a formal safety inspection complete with check sheets and safety publications being handed out to the motorcyclists.  The NYPD on the other hand invokes the word “safety” in these stops as little more than a cheap excuse to demand riders’ paperwork, and only knows how to identify only the most common and obvious equipment violations.  No checklists, no training, no consistency, no literature and not even the illusion of anything but the objective of checking papers.

In our opinion the NYPD’s conduct amounts to profiling (think “motorcycle stop, question and frisk“) and illegal search & seizure.  The absence of even a rudimentary valid safety inspection routine and the conspicuous lack of necessary instruction and supervision is a disservice to the city’s motorcycle riders and a waste of urgently needed safety funds.

Worse still, the checkpoints operating on the day of the Alexian Lien incident proved that the NYPD is unwilling and incapable of stopping the most egregious offenders.  The NYPD knew about the illegal motorcycle ride well in advance and had several checkpoints set up.  The riders who tangled with Lien and his family boldly rode through an East River bridge checkpoint only minutes before, and the police conducting that checkpoint meekly stepped aside to let them all go by.

The NYPD’s embarrassing performance that day allowed the Alexian Lien beating to occur.  The visibly inept police response may have even led to the assault by emboldening the Block Party participants.  In an attempt to save face and convey a facade of usefulness, the department subsequently went on a weeks-long daily rampage of particularly antagonistic, disruptive rush-hour motorcycle-only checkpoints.

MOCs continue in NYC to this day, while groups of hooligans just like the group who beat up Lien continue to do as they please, wheelying past police with their middle fingers extended, without even fear of being pulled over.

If the police will only stop people who are willing to stop, what’s the point?