Police officers in the Cleveland suburb of Mayfield Heights know that the U.S. Constitution prohibits them from using checkpoints to search drivers and their cars for drugs. They need probable cause to do that. So they decided to get it by lying.
Recently posted yellow signs along I-271 warned drivers of a drug checkpoint and drug-sniffing dog ahead, even though there was neither. In fact, such a checkpoint would be illegal. Drivers should know that, but many don’t.
Cops used this ruse to see whether any drivers would react to the sign in a suspicious way, giving them probable cause to search the vehicles. Officials in this city of 19,000 have defended this scam as a valid tactic in the war on drugs, while remaining tight-lipped about its results.
Whether Mayfield Heights police stole this scheme from another department, it’s a bad idea. Any government agency ought to have a compelling reason to lie to its citizens, and a fishing expedition for drugs isn’t one of them.
One motorist said his long, unkempt hair might have made him a target, after he missed his exit and pulled over to check for directions. The driver said police asked him what kind of drugs he had, but found none.
When public officials of any sort lie, they erode trust and damage community relations. Enough people already believe — unfairly — that all police profile people and will do almost anything to make an arrest. Nor does this ruse appear to be an especially effective and efficient use of strained police resources.
The counterfeit checkpoint is probably legal, though it raises troubling questions about whether it violates Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful searches and seizures. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that random checkpoints by law enforcement agencies are, in general, illegal. It’s unclear whether faking an unconstitutional tactic to produce a suspicious behavior, without a compelling reason to do so, would cut it constitutionally.
And what constitutes “suspicious” behavior? It could be perfectly logical for some people without drugs to try to avoid a checkpoint. Maybe they’re in a hurry, or perhaps they want to avoid the hassle and indignity of a search.
A fake checkpoint could also prompt dangerous behavior, such as making illegal U-turns or cutting through the grass median strip. Police departments should do a U-turn on fake checkpoints.
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