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D.C. DUI Lawyers Question Legality of Fake Drug Checkpoints

by | Jul 4, 2013

Drug checkpoints are illegal in this country. They have been since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled so in 2000.

However, our D.C. DUI lawyers know that won’t stop law enforcement agencies from preying on the fact that many people don’t know this.

In a strategy that is likely to catch on in many other states and jurisdictions, police in a suburban Cleveland neighborhood launched an initiative involving “fake drug checkpoints.” It works like this:

Large yellow signs are placed along a swath of interstate highway, warning drivers that they should be prepared to stop and that there was a drug-sniffing dog in use up ahead at a drug checkpoint.

In reality, there never was such a checkpoint. Police knew they couldn’t do this without breaking the law. However, by tricking the public at large, they were able to gauge reactions of motorists. When they felt those reactions to be suspicious, individuals were pulled over, questioned and, in some cases, searched.

The checkpoint didn’t turn up much. In fact, one of those they stopped was a prominent heavy metal radio DJ who had pulled over shortly after the first sign in order to use his cell phone to recalculate directions after his GPS device had lost its signal. He gave consent for police to search his vehicle, both with a K-9 drug-sniffing dog and on their own. They found nothing and he was released.

He later wondered publicly, however, whether the stop was at least by some measure connected to a bias formed by his appearance. He had long hair and scruffy stubble on his face. He was wearing a heavy metal t-shirt and his car was not one you would expect to be driven by a professional.

But this is of course no reason to stop someone. The question is whether these kinds of fake checkpoint operations, in addition to being a bad public relations move, might also potentially be illegal given the potential for bias.

Additionally, there are strong Fourth Amendment violation concerns. The Fourth Amendment requires that searches and seizures be reasonable. They are generally considered unreasonable when conducted in the absence of individualized suspicion of wrongdoing – which is exactly what all checkpoints lack.

However, there have been numerous exceptions to this, including random drug testing of student athletes, drug and alcohol tests for railway workers and, of course, sobriety checkpoints for motorists.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Indianapolis v. Edmond that random checkpoint searches and drug dog sniffs for the purpose of locating narcotics oversteps legal boundaries. What’s more, the overall “hit” rate in Indianapolis’ drug checkpoint program that spurred that decision was about 9 percent.

The only two reasons that police are allowed to randomly stop vehicles is to prevent illegal immigrants and contraband from sneaking into the U.S. and to get drunk drivers off the road.

Even routine alcohol sobriety checkpoints have ample potential to run afoul of the law when officers fail to adhere to strict protocol and guidelines.

If you are facing DUI charges in D.C., contact the Scrofano Law, PC at 202-765-3175.