Newsbrief: Colorado Appeals Court Upholds Fake Drug Checkpoints 8/28/03

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Highway drug checkpoints are okay as long as they're not real, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled August 14. The Missouri Supreme Court upheld a similar practice last year. The ruling came in a case that began in June 2000, when Dolores County Sheriff's deputies put up roadblocks outside Telluride just as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival was getting underway. Ahead of the roadblocks, officers put up signs reading "Narcotics Checkpoint One Mile Ahead" and "Narcotics Canine Ahead." There was no checkpoint. Officers would then look for people attempting to turn around illegally or throwing items out of windows, pull them over for the criminal violation, and use that as a basis for a search.

It happened to Stephen Corbin Roth, who was convicted of possession of drug paraphernalia. Upon seeing the warning signs, Roth tossed a pipe out the window, and after pulling him over for littering, police found another pipe and psychedelic mushrooms. Roth appealed his conviction, arguing that the fake checkpoints violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In a 2001 case involving the Indianapolis police, the US Supreme Court ruled that actual drug checkpoints are unconstitutional because they involved stops and searches with no probable cause to believe any given driver had committed a crime. But in the Colorado case, where police set up a fake checkpoint, then detained people attempting to avoid it, the judges ruled that police had reason to believe a crime had been committed. According to Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Sandra Rothenberg, who wrote the decision, fictitious checkpoints designed as "ruses" do not raise the same constitutional issues as the actual anti-drug checkpoints that the US Supreme Court disallowed. Police are allowed to create ruses that cause people to either commit violations or to abandon property that, when found, gives police reasonable suspicion to stop and search a vehicle. In the Roth case, Roth gave the police the legal grounds to stop him once he littered (by throwing out his pot pipe) and search his vehicle once police recovered the discarded pipe.

Dolores County Sheriff Jerry Martin had put the fake checkpoints on hold while the case was appealed, but told the Denver Post he would reinstate them. Martin, who is also head of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, added that he would encourage his colleagues to follow his lead.

Bottom line: If it says "Narcotics Checkpoint," it isn't one.

Visit to read the opinion online.

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Issue #300, 8/28/03 Editorial: One Less Prisoner in America | Cheryl Miller Memorial Project Coming to Washington, DC This September 22-23 | David Borden's Open Letter to DC's Chief Judge on Refusing to Appear for Jury Service | August is Drug Reform Lobbying Month at Home! | DRCNet/ Buttons and Stickers for Free or Cheap | Perry Fund Accepting Applications for 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 School Years, Providing Scholarships for Students Losing Aid Because of Drug Convictions | Newsbrief: Kentucky's Galbraith Enters Attorney General Contest, Downplays Marijuana | Newsbrief: Supreme Court Justice Says Prison Terms "Too Long," Calls for End to Mandatory Minimums | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Drug War, Chinese Style | Newsbrief: Colorado Appeals Court Upholds Fake Drug Checkpoints | Newsbrief: Fake Drug Checkpoints Cause Uproar in Indiana | Newsbrief: Feds Seize Hemp Promotional Vehicle at US-Canada Border | The Reformer's Calendar
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