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Don't freak out. It's not a real drug checkpoint -- and it would be illegal if it was. [Bill Peters/The Free Thought Project]
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Don’t freak out. It’s not a real drug checkpoint — and it would be illegal if it was.
[Bill Peters/The Free Thought Project]

Checkpoints specifically to search for drugs are illegal, but that hasn’t stopped local cops in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, from still finding a way to violate people’s rights and conduct unreasonable searches — fake drug checkpoints.

Police placed the “DRUG CHECKPOINT AHEAD” signs along the freeway last year, “warning” motorists that the checkpoint was ahead, reports The Free Thought Project. The cops then gathered in the express lanes of Interstate 271. Of course, there was no checkpoint, just cops waiting for motorists to react suspiciously after seeing the signs.

It’s a lawful and legitimate way tactic in the War On Drugs, claimed Mayfield Heights Assistant Prosecutor Dominic Vitantonio, reports Mark Gillespie at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “It’s a good thing.”

James Hardiman, ACLU of Ohio: "Quote" [WKYC]
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James Hardiman, ACLU of Ohio:
“Americans have a fundamental right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures”
[WKYC]

But civil libertarians are skeptical, as is one of the people who was stopped and searched. They worry that officers are profiling motorists, possibly violating the Fourth Amendment rights of citizens against unlawful searches and seizures.

“We’re going to be gathering information,” said spokesman Nick Worner of the Cleveland office of the American Civil Liberties Union, which will examine the details of the fake checkpoint. “That information will determine what we think is going on.”

“Mayfield Heights police may believe they have concocted a scheme that allows them to circumvent the Constitution, but they are mistaken,” said James Hardiman, legal director of the ACLU of Ohio. “Americans have a fundamental right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and courts have been clear that random drug checkpoints like Mayfield Heights’ are illegal.

Mayfield Heights Police Chief Fred Bittner got a letter from the ACLU of Ohio as a result of the checkpoint [Mayfield-Hillcrest Patch]
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Mayfield Heights Police Chief Fred Bittner got a letter from the ACLU of Ohio as a result of the checkpoint
[Mayfield-Hillcrest Patch]

The ACLU of Ohio sent an August 2013 letter, signed by Hardiman, to Fred W. Bittner, chief of police in Mayfield Heights, warning that “For a variety of reasons, we believe that the use of this particular type of checkpoint is troubling and raises serious constitutional concerns.”

Incredibly, the Mayfield Heights Police Department initially denied the existence of the checkpoint, according to the ACLU of Ohio. When confronted by someone on Facebook about the constitutionality of such a checkpoint, the official MHPD Facebook account posted a comment claiming “their [sic] wasn’t a drug checkpoint and random vehicles were not stopped.”

But some experts say the fake checkpoints are legal. A 2000 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court said actual drug checkpoints are not legal, and that police can randomly stop vehicles for only two reasons: To prevent illegal aliens and contraband from entering the United States; and to get drunk drivers off the road.

Mayfield Heights Police on June 24, 2013, placed a series of signs along the northbound I-271 express lanes reading “Drug Checkpoint Ahead,” “Police K9 Dog In Use,” and “Prepare To Stop.” Officers then watched the reactions of motorists to the signs.

There were arrests, and drugs were seized, according to Vitantonio, who said four people were stopped and searched. Three of the motorists crossed through the grassy median or at emergency vehicle crossings; police said these “evasive actions” gave them probable cause to search the cars.

Was Bill Peters, a Cleveland DJ, profiled because of his long hair? [LinkedIn]
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Was Bill Peters, a Cleveland DJ, profiled because of his long hair?
[LinkedIn]

The fourth driver, Bill Peters, 53, of Medina, Ohio, said he did nothing wrong. Peters said he simply parked on the side of the freeway to check his phone for directions. He was stopped and gave police permission to search his vehicle (hint: NEVER give police permission to search; make them do their jobs and get a warrant). Vitantonio said if Peters hadn’t given police permission to search his car, they would have had to let him go.

Peters said he was driving on I-271 at about 11:30 a.m., when he missed the merge lane that would have allowed him to exit at Wilson Mills Road. He said he then pulled over to check his phone for directions. As he pulled back onto the freeway, he said his phone disconnected from the charger, so he pulled back over to reconnect it.

Peters said he had seen the drug checkpoint signs and was not concerned. Although he has long hair, owns a music label, and hosts a heavy metal radio show at John Carroll University, he says he doesn’t use marijuana, but wonders if officers targeted him because of his appearance.

Bill Peters: "Quote" [Cleveland Scene]
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Bill Peters:
“The last time I checked, it is not against the law to pull over to the side of the road to check directions”
[Cleveland Scene]

“The last time I checked, it is not against the law to pull over to the side of the road to check directions,” Peters said, adding that the officer who pulled him over commended him for being safety conscious.

After returning to the freeway, Peters said he saw the sign that read, “Prepare To Stop,” at which point he slowed down. Seconds later, a cop car was behind him with blue lights flashing.

Peters said the officer asked him if he was having car trouble. Peters explained why he stopped and then slowed down; he said the officer asked him “what kind of drugs” he had in the car, saying it would be better to “confess” before other cops and the drug dog arrived.

After Peters insisted he had no drugs, other officers and the dog were summoned, as promised.

“I see what they’re doing, but I think it’s kind of dangerous,” Peters said. “It’s one thing to do this on a 25 mph road; it’s another on a busy interstate. I think it’s a violation to just be pulled over and searched.”

Ric Simmons, professor of law, Moritz College of Law: "Quote" [Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law]
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Ric Simmons, professor of law, Moritz College of Law:
“They can lie to anybody”
[Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law]

But (and this is something we all need to remember), police aren’t required to tell the truth, according to Ric Simmons, a professor of law at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. “They can lie to anybody,” Simmons said.

Civil rights attorney Terry Gilbert, based in Cleveland, thinks the reason for stopping Peters was questionable, at best. Police are allowed to lie to suspects, he said, but he questioned the practice of deceiving motorists about a fake drug checkpoint on a busy interstate highway.

“I don’t think it accomplishes any public safety goals,” Gilbert said. “I don’t think it’s good to mislead the population for any reason if you’re a government agency.”

It’s important to know your rights — even moreso if you are a cannabis consumer in a prohibitionist state like Ohio.

“You must stop when an officer pulls you over for a traffic violation, but it does not necessarily mean they can search your car without your permission,” said Michael Benza, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. “Police need to be able to provide a judge with a legal and valid reason for why they ordered a search of your car.”

“Police should enforce the laws and protect the public, not seek to skirt the law and trick the public,” said Hardiman of the ACLU of Ohio. “This type of law enforcement is not only unconstitutional, it is counterproductive to the police department’s ultimate goals.

“If Mayfield Heights police are planning to run these drug checkpoints in the future, I strongly urge them to reconsider,” Hardiman said.

 

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