Why? Because there isn’t exactly such a thing as a drug checkpoint. In City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, the Supreme Court found random drug checkpoints unconstitutional in 2000. Since then, police (particularly in the mid-west) have gotten into the habit of putting signs up warning drivers of upcoming drug checkpoints and then detaining and searching drivers who make illegal u-turns or desperately fling contraband from their vehicles. These checkpoint-like fake checkpoints serve as the functional equivalent of a checkpoint without violating the Court’s prohibition against checkpoints.
We’ve received several emails about this practice over the past couple years and we’ve mentioned it in our presentations, but perhaps this is something that deserves more attention. The prodigious Drug WarRant blogger Peter Guither encountered one of these non-checkpoints over the Thanksgiving weekend, and had some very interesting observations. Most notably, the sign warning of an upcoming drug checkpoint was located shortly before a rest area exit ramp, the intended result being that drivers wishing to avoid the checkpoint would pull in. Peter did not stop, but observed officers in the rest area parking lot using dogs to sniff approaching vehicles.
Peter theorizes, and I agree, that this practice may have been influenced by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Caballes v. Illinois, which held that police don’t need evidence to use drug-sniffing dogs during traffic stops. As practiced previously, the fake checkpoint tactic often took place on open stretches of highway, provoking illegal u-turns into oncoming traffic and the disposal of contraband onto the roadside. Discarded contraband not found by police could theoretically end up in the hands of children, or more likely, convicts on work detail. The high potential for collateral harm resulting from this tactic may have limited its implementation.
The 2004 Caballes ruling, however, assured officers that courts would approve probable cause searches stemming from warrantless dog-sniffs. By steering alarmed motorists into a canine-infested rest area, police could circumvent the need to trigger traffic violations as a pretext for drug searches. Obviously, not everyone entering the rest area was motivated by the checkpoint warning, but Caballes doesn’t require particularized suspicion.
Please warn your friends and family about these “drug checkpoint” signs, especially if they live in the mid-west. Keep driving and don’t look back is the best advice I can give. We’re likely to see more of this, and since the Court has not prohibited it, warning the public is our best defense.
If you see a “drug checkpoint” sign in your area, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.