Fake Drug Checkpoints Trick Drivers, but Are They Legal?

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By Brett Snider, Esq. on July 01, 2013 3:38 PM

DUI checkpoints are generally legal to check if drivers are drunk. But what if police use a fake drug checkpoint sign to catch drivers with illegal drugs?

In Mayfield Heights, Ohio, police have set up yellow signs that say "Drug Checkpoint Ahead." But really, there's no such thing. Instead, officers are observing drivers' reactions and then pulling over the ones who "react suspiciously" upon seeing the fake warning, reports The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.

Whether this ruse works to snag drug suspects is one thing, but is this deceptive practice legal?

Fake Checkpoints, Real Arrests

Prosecutors in Mayfield Heights believe so, and officers have already made arrests and drug seizures from these fake checkpoints. Basically, officers are targeting drivers who seem to freak out upon seeing the fake drug checkpoint sign.

These arrests have often been aided by drug-sniffing dogs, which the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld as legal without a warrant, as long as a driver has been legitimately detained for a traffic violation.

The Supreme Court, however, has also ruled on the issue of when police can set up checkpoints. According to the Court, there are only two legitimate purposes for checkpoints:

In both of these cases, officers have a strong legitimate interest in having a checkpoint (national security and driver safety, respectively) to stop vehicles without suspicion of a crime.

So in order to not violate the Fourth Amendment, officers employing fake checkpoint signs cannot stop a driver unless they have specific and articulable facts supporting reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed.

Doubts About Legitimacy

Last week, some drivers fell right into the trap by making sudden turns into grassy medians and emergency vehicle crossings, police told the Plain Dealer.

But one driver who was pulled over near a fake checkpoint said that he was just trying to "pull over to the side of the road to check directions." Still, he allowed officers to search his vehicle anyway, reports The Associated Press.

Generally, an officer who pulls a driver over on suspicion of a traffic violation has no right to search the driver or his vehicle without more evidence. But if the driver gives consent to a search, then it's game on.

Part of the genius of the fake deception is that police play to most drivers' naiveté. They're pulling over scared citizens, knowing that most will not refuse questions or searches of their vehicles.

Police do not have to inform you of your legal options or rights unless you are in custody. So a bit of deception in the use of fake drug checkpoints may indeed be perfectly legal.

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