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Feature: The Drug Checkpoint That Wasn't -- Louisiana Lawmen Play Fast and Loose with the Constitution

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #548)
Politics & Advocacy

In its 2000 decision in Indianapolis v. Edmond, the US Supreme Court held that the city's effort to attack the drug trade by holding a checkpoint to look for drugs was an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment's protection of the right to be free from unwarranted searches and seizures. But in the years since then, a handful of departments across the county, usually in the South, have brazenly trumpeted their resort to drug checkpoints.

nighttime driving checkpoint
The latest department to step into the breach was Louisiana's Beauregard Parish Sheriff's Office, which held such a checkpoint last Thursday night near the town of Starks. Following the lead of sheriff's deputies, the local newspaper was all over the story.

"Narcotics checkpoint a success," blared the headline in Monday's Derrider Daily News story on the police action. The article went on to explain how, following complaints of drug dealing in the neighborhood, police decided to take action:

"The Beauregard Parish Sheriff's Office set up a Narcotics Checkpoint Thursday night near Starks, Louisiana," the local paper reported. "Due to several complaints coming from the Fields area, the BPSO put together a joint operation with the help of Sheriff Ricky Moses and the DeRidder city police department. The operations utilized several BPSO deputies as well as the new Drug Interdiction team led by Detectives Dale Sharp and Greg Hill. Seven police units total were used for the operation in addition to four other units performing regular patrols."

The checkpoint resulted in three arrests for marijuana and hydrocodone possession, a quarter pound of marijuana being tossed from an unknown vehicle's window, and a number of traffic citations.

"If this really was a drug checkpoint, it is clearly unconstitutional," said Steve Silverman, executive director of the constitutional rights defense group Flex Your Rights. "If people went to court and fought it, the evidence would be dismissed -- unless they consented to a search. The sheriff down there must know checkpoints like this are constitutionally questionable, but they can still ask people to consent, and they know how to phrase that request in such a way that people are likely to consent," he said.

"If they are stopping and searching people without probable cause, that would appear to violate Edmonds, but we don't know for sure that's what they were doing," said Marjorie Esman, head of the ACLU's Louisiana affiliate. "Drug checkpoints are unconstitutional, but these guys sound like they are straight up trying to do one," said Esman.

While the Supreme Court has held drug checkpoints to be unconstitutional, it has allowed the use of checkpoints whose primary purpose is protecting certain safety-related governmental interests. Thus sobriety checkpoints are lawful, as are checkpoints to check drivers' licenses and motor vehicle registrations, as well as checkpoints designed to search for illegal aliens near the border. This week, the sheriff's office was busy arguing that it wasn't an unconstitutional drug checkpoint after all, merely a safety check.

"They're really safety checkpoints," backpedaled Beauregard Parish Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Joe Toler. "The newspaper has its own spin on it," he said, adding that the warning signs specified a safety checkpoint, not a drug checkpoint.

The newspaper article certainly did have a spin, but that spin was provided by Beauregard Parish Deputy Dale Sharp, head of the department's new drug interdiction team. "The Narcotics Checkpoint's main objective was to get the narcotics off of the street," the article said before quoting Sharp: "Anything off of the streets is not in the hands of kids or anyone else," Sharp said in the article.

Sharp also bragged that more checkpoints could be coming soon. "Definitely," says Sharp. "As more complaints come in, we will be doing more."

But Chief Deputy Toler was sticking to the official line. "There just happened to be narcotics officers out there, and it just so happened that we did our safety checkpoint in a certain area where they place is known for drug trafficking," he said. "It just so happened they were all in the right place at the right time," he added.

Drivers and vehicles were not searched without consent, Toler said. "Everyone pretty much consents," he said.

"You can still refuse a search at a checkpoint," said Silverman. "They are not constitutionally allowed to search you just because they set up a checkpoint. You can say, 'I know you guys are just doing your job, but I have to go somewhere, am I free to go?' If they search you without probable cause and without your consent and they find something, you'll get arrested, but it's highly likely the charges will be thrown out. If not, it could go all the way to the Supreme Court."

It appears the sheriff's office is playing a pretty transparent game. They set up the checkpoint because of drug traffic complaints, they searched for drugs, and they had drug detection dogs on the scene -- not, presumably, to assist in reading drivers' licenses. But as long as police are careful to say the right things -- "It's a safety checkpoint" -- they can get away with it.

Flex Your Rights' Silverman also pointed out another permutation in law enforcement drug checkpoint tactics: the drug checkpoint that isn't. "If you see a warning that says drug checkpoint ahead, don't throw your stuff out the window, don't exit at the nearest ramp, don't do a sudden u-turn to get away, because it's not a drug checkpoint ahead, but a ruse by police," said Silverman. "The Supreme Court has held that drug checkpoints are an unconstitutional infringement on your Fourth Amendment rights, but that doesn't mean police can't try to fool you. At those fake drug checkpoints, they will have officers waiting to see who throws what out his window, or who suddenly exits to avoid the nonexistent checkpoint, and they will find a reason to stop you."

So, driving public, if you see a large warning sign that screams "Drug Checkpoint Ahead!" it is either a ruse or an unconstitutional law enforcement activity. But if you run across a sign that warns "Safety Checkpoint Ahead!" know that it is just as likely that police are looking for drugs in the guise of public safety as they are for expired drivers' licenses.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

Law Enforcement, like the military, is full of religious mental masturbators who have embraced the delusional hollow-headed rantings of their leaders and puppet masters.

Everyone knows religiousity, and it's certitude, does not require evidence... it's survival thrives on faith... faith that somewhere somebody knows what they are talking about, faith that god will forgive their crimes in his name, faith that their deadly drug of choice, alcohol, remains legal despite its carnage!

As long as fools put their faith where it doesn't belong we will continue to suffer these fools.

Whatever Happened to Parity?

Fri, 08/22/2008 - 12:15pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

"The Constitution be damned!"

It's a tragic irony that my enemies either wear American flag patches of their uniforms or have their pictures taken in front of it--as if they are champions and defenders of freedom and justice. Yeah, right!

Stars and Stripes vs. Swastika ... what's the difference?

Fri, 08/22/2008 - 12:49pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I have seen these check-points driving to California from Dallas,...They are customs officials that are supposedly looking for "Aliens" but they also have dogs (Alien smelling dogs???) and they have cars go to inspection
and search for drugs Im sure,..I have seen these cars pulled over while driving by!!! they are conducting illegal
drug checkpoints PERIOD!

Fri, 08/22/2008 - 2:17pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Namely, to counter-act the effect of someone standing on their 4th Amendment right against unlawful search and seizure. Someone who holds their ground against such would automatically become the subject of a dog search, as 'they have to be hiding something' for daring to do so.

Of course, most LEOs wouldn't be that brazen in saying so...unless they are truly recruiting from the shallow end of the gene pool. Thei contempt a lot of LEOs have for the Constitution they've sworn to up[hold (for whom, only fellow cops?) must be carefully couched in neutral language, lest that contempt peek through. But the very presence of those dogs is an indicator of just how little the LEOs think of their paymasters; its' a tacit assumption that everyone they come into contact with is guilty.

Fri, 08/22/2008 - 2:21pm Permalink
puregenius (not verified)

Sometimes when I read things like this I start laughing manically in order to temper outrage.

This is what prohibition has brought us to, law enforcement officials trying to get around that pesky Constitution. One would think that the Chief Deputy could come up with a better lie, but then again he doesn't need to. No one is likely to be held accountable. I haven't heard of a case where the FBI investigated the violation of a person's civil rights because an of illegal search for drugs.

Fri, 08/22/2008 - 4:13pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

people out there need to know their rights. you don't have to consent to a search. you don't have to even roll down your window beyond a crack to give your license/registration if required (at least where i live). but the majority of people are scared of police officers and believe that they have, or should have, powers beyond what the law prescribes. so the lesson is KNOW YOUR RIGHTS!

Sat, 08/23/2008 - 3:12am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

I agree, too many people give up their rights because they are afraid of police. And why not...everything they do, their demeanor, their training, their uniforms and gear, their GUNS...intimidates most people. And then throw in the fact that so many responding officers/traffic cops are SO young...they can get a license to kill before they can even legally drink!
YES, ROLL UP YOUR WINDOWS. The film "Busted" (see this site) suggests this, and only opening enough to pass info and speak to the man. If told to get out, ALWAYS LOCK THE DOOR BEHIND YOU
Police have no regard for the constitution. Most probably don't even understand it, having at most a highschool degree and a few weeks killer training. I believe in STRICT CONSTITUTIONALISM. I believe that the framers SAID WHAT THEY MEANT. It still boggles my mind why S.C. Judges are given the Constitution and the Federalist Papers as a guide to making Supreme Decisions, and disregard the Anti-Federalist Papers. It was those papers, mostly by Jefferson, that upheld the Bill of Rights, an addition to the constitution that Federalists were much opposed to. Then perhaps States would have the Rights that were promised to them before the Public Administration became the fourth branch of government, as well as the governments strong-arm over it's citizen's.
A governments purpose is to serve it's citizens. When a government no longer serves the interest of the governed, it is the people's responsibility, and duty, to throw off that government, according to Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Paine, Civil Rights Revolutionaries, and countless contemporary political scientists and laypersons.

Tue, 08/26/2008 - 9:11pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

There is also the argument that a drivers licence is not a right but a privilege. No, I don't like it either, but don't shoot the messenger.

Mon, 08/25/2008 - 10:24am Permalink
Bud Lee (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Driving is an entitlement.  If you meet the requirements you are entitled by the state to drive.  Just like you are entitled to carry a firearm if you meet those criteria.  The wingnuts have made entitlement programs a dirty word but they are a everyday part of society that everyone takes advantage of. 

Sat, 09/11/2010 - 2:32pm Permalink

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