Fourth Amendment

Ohio Cops Use Fake Drug Checkpoint to Dodge Fourth Amendment

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Bill Peters

In 2000 the Supreme Court ruled that random vehicle checkpoints aimed at finding illegal drugs violate the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. That is why police in Mayfield Heights, a Cleveland suburb, do not have a drug checkpoint. Instead they have the next best thing: a fake drug checkpoint. The Associated Press reports that Mayfield Heights police "recently posted large yellow signs along Interstate 271 that warned drivers that there was a drug checkpoint ahead, to be prepared to stop and that there was a drug-sniffing police dog in use." None of that was true, but the cops hoped the signs would cause drivers carrying drugs to make conspicuous attempts to avoid the nonexistent checkpoint, thereby providing reasonable suspicion for a stop.

According to A.P., the police "say that four people were stopped, with some arrests and drugs seized," but "they declined to be more specific." Three drivers called attention to themselves by making U-turns. The fourth, Medina resident Bill Peters, was pulled over because he stopped on the side of the road a couple of times to check his phone for directions and to reconnect the power adapter after it came loose. For his caution he was rewarded with a search that turned up nothing illegal. Dominic Vitantonio, a local prosecutor, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer the cops would have had to skip the search if Peters had not consented to it. But since the cops had a drug-detecting dog, they could have manufactured probable cause readily enough. 

While the ACLU's Cleveland office is looking into the operation, The Plain Dealer cites unnamed "experts" who say "the fake checkpoints are legal"—you know, because they're fake. But should police be free to threaten people with constitutional violations? What if a cop tells you he is going to search your house no matter what, but if you consent he will refrain from wrecking the place? What if he threatens to severely beat you unless you confess to a crime? Although actually beating a confession out of you would violate the Fifth Amendment, merely threatening to do so should be OK by the same logic that blesses fake drug checkpoints. It's only a fake beating, after all. 

Peters, who suspects the cops stopped him partly because of his long hair, seems to think his rights were violated. "The last time I checked, it is not against the law to pull over to the side of the road to check directions," he told The Plain Dealer. "I think it's a violation to just be pulled over and searched." Vitantonio does not understand why anyone would criticize the city's end run around the Fourth Amendment. "We should be applauded for doing this," he said. "It's a good thing."

[Thanks to Warty for the tip.]