A series of signs posted on an Ohio Interstate recently warned of a “drug checkpoint” ahead, noting that people should prepare to stop and be subjected to a drug-sniffing K-9 unit.
The police were counting on the fact that most of the people passing didn’t know their rights.
As our Birmingham DUI defense lawyers can tell you, drug checkpoints are illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court struck them down in 2000 with its ruling in Indianapolis v. Edmond.
Interestingly, the small police department in Ohio responsible for posting these signs knew this as well. That’s why in reality, there never was a drug checkpoint ahead. No drug-sniffing dogs. No officers waiting to search vehicles for drugs.
The whole thing was a ruse in which the agency posted law enforcement units near those signs to gauge the reaction of passing motorists. Those deemed to have acted suspiciously, say by abruptly exiting the lanes where the signs were posted, were subsequently targeted for a stop.
The operation wasn’t wildly successful. In all, only four people were stopped. Police did reportedly confiscate some drugs, but declined to say what kind or how much. One of those stopped was a local heavy metal radio host. He said he pulled over after passing the signs because his GPS signal was lost and he needed to stop and punch in the directions again. He consented to a search, which turned up no illegal substances and he was perfectly sober. However, he later took to the airwaves to vent his suspicions that he was stopped on the basis of his appearance, rather than any action he might have taken.
There may be a potentially strong case to be made here, particularly if the basis upon which officer’s stopped suspects was not clearly identified or uniform, as is required in actual DUI checkpoints.
Even if not on this basis, we expect these operations to somehow be legally challenged, despite prosecutors’ assertions that they are perfectly legal.
The 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling held that there are only two legally acceptable reasons why law enforcement can randomly stop vehicles. Those are No. 1, to ensure that illegal immigrants and contraband don’t enter the U.S., and No. 2 to remove drunk drivers from the road.
The frequent drug checkpoints held in Indiana – and many other U.S. cities – prior to 2000 gave rise to the high court’s decision. Although the defendants in that case had argued that the officers in question failed to follow the written directives they were given, the bigger issue was whether the searches and seizures were reasonable, per the Fourth Amendment.
As the court would ultimately rule, “We have never approved a checkpoint program whose primary purpose was to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing. Rather, our checkpoint cases have recognized only limited exceptions to the general rule that a seizure must be accompanied by some measure of individualized suspicion.”