For more than a quarter-century, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival has drawn thousands of music fans to remote southwestern Colorado each June. But last year, the festival attracted a less welcome presence: a highway checkpoint manned by the Southwest Drug Task Force, complete with a large sign warning approaching travelers of the upcoming "Narcotics Checkpoint Ahead."
According to complaints from bluegrass fans compiled by Planet Bluegrass, the festival's organizers, task force members at the roadblock searched cars of festival-goers and sniffed them with drug-detecting dogs. Press accounts at the time featured a satisfied Dolores County Sheriff Jerry Martin crowing over some 20 arrests, mostly for marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms.
"It just bowled us over," Martin told the Denver Post. "It was a great success. I'm going to be in court for the next six months."
Dolores County adjoins San Miguel County, where Telluride and the festival location are both located. Ironically, San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters has gained national prominence as a Libertarian who is adamantly opposed to the drug war. His department does not participate in the Southwest Drug Task Force. He told the Post he is "philosophically opposed" to drug checkpoints and would not use them.
Sheriff Masters was not alone among local officials in criticizing the checkpoint. "I think it's outrageous," then-Telluride Mayor Amy Levek told the Post. "I'm not sure what the motivation is. The bluegrass festival has had its ups and downs, but for the last 10 years the crowd has been very manageable, a good crowd."
Levek also suggested that the checkpoint's timing to coincide with the festival was an attempt to generate revenue for Dolores County.
Although festival organizer Chuck Ferguson was quoted at the time as saying he "had no problem with officers enforcing the law," he also expressed concerns about festival-goers being targeted for law enforcement attention.
But after hearing from enough complaining bluegrass fans, Ferguson and Planet Bluegrass changed their tune. Ferguson told the Post last week he believes officers are guilty of profiling his customers, some of whom have long hair and drive beat-up cars.
"We feel that driving to a music festival, you know, shouldn't be cause to have your car pulled over and drug-sniffed," he said. "Some people said they did nothing wrong, and they were pulled over and sniffed."
On December 12th, Planet Bluegrass gave formal notice to the state and local law enforcement agencies participating in the Southwest Task Force that it intends to sue them for violating the civil rights of festival-goers. Under Colorado law, the agencies must respond by mid-April; if they do not, the suit will be filed.
The task force consists of members of law enforcement agencies in Dolores, La Plata, and Montezuma counties, as well as the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. The suit names as possible defendants officials from those counties, as well as Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar.
Although a recent Supreme Court ruling banned the use of random roadside checkpoints to enforce drug laws, Dolores and Montezuma County officials vowed to organize another checkpoint this year. The "Narcotics Checkpoint Ahead" sign notwithstanding, they characterized the roadblock as "traffic enforcement."
"The sheriff told me everything was done by the book, and I believe him," Dolores County Commissioner Leroy Gore told the Cortez (Dolores County) Journal. "If they are comfortable with doing it next year, then I support them."