MAYFIELD HEIGHTS, Ohio — Police are not allowed to use checkpoints to search motorists and their vehicles for drugs. So, in Mayfield Heights, officers are trying the next-best thing — fake drug checkpoints.
Police gathered in the express lanes of Interstate 271 on Monday after placing signs along the freeway warning motorists that a drug checkpoint lay ahead.
There was no checkpoint, only police waiting for motorists to react suspiciously after seeing the signs. A Mayfield Heights assistant prosecutor says it’s a lawful and legitimate tactic in his city’s war on drugs.
“We should be applauded for doing this,” Dominic Vitantonio said. “It’s a good thing.”
Civil libertarians and one of the people who was stopped and searched are skeptical. They wonder if officers were profiling motorists and whether anyone’s Fourth Amendment right against unlawful searches and seizures was violated.
Nick Worner, a spokesman for the Cleveland office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his office will examine the circumstances surrounding the fake checkpoint.
“We’re going to be gathering information,” Worner said. “That information will determine what we think is going on.”
The fake checkpoints are legal, experts say. A 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said actual checkpoints are not legal and that police can randomly stop cars for just two reasons: to prevent illegal aliens and contraband from entering the U.S. and to get drunk drivers off the road.
It’s unclear if other police departments in Northeast Ohio have tried fake drug checkpoints.
On Monday, Mayfield Heights police placed a series of signs along the northbound I-271 express lanes that said: “Drug Checkpoint Ahead,” “Police K9 Dog In Use” and “Be Prepared to Stop.” Officers then watched how motorists reacted after seeing the signs.
Vitantonio said there were arrests and drugs seized. He said Thursday that four people were stopped and searched. Three of the motorists crossed through the grassy median or at emergency vehicle crossings, evasive actions that gave police reasonable suspicion to stop those cars.
The fourth motorist, Bill Peters of Medina, insists he did nothing wrong except to park on the side of the freeway to check his phone for directions. He was stopped and allowed police to search his car. Vitantonio said that if Peters had not given police permission to search, they would have had to let him go.
Peters, 53, said he was driving on I-271 around 11:30 a.m. when he missed the merge that would take him into the local lanes and allow him to exit at Wilson Mills Road. He said he pulled over to check his phone for directions. As he pulled back onto the freeway, he said his phone disconnected from the charger, so he returned to the berm to reconnect it.
He said he had seen the drug checkpoint signs and was not worried. Peters has long hair and distinguished heavy metal roots. He spent 26 years in sales and marketing for Warner Bros. Records, owns a music label, hosts a heavy metal radio show at John Carroll University and is an ardent promoter of local talent. Despite his background in a business where drugs are de rigueur, Peters insists he has never inhaled.
He wonders if officers targeted him because of his appearance.
“The last time I checked, it is not against the law to pull over to the side of the road to check directions,” said Peters, who added that the officer who stopped him commended him for being safety conscious.
Vitantonio insisted that Peters gave police reasonable suspicion to pull him over.
After stopping and returning to the freeway, Peters said he saw a sign that said, “Be Prepared to Stop,” which prompted him to slow a bit. Seconds later, a police car was behind him, lights flashing.
Peters said the officer asked if he was having car trouble. Peters explained why he had stopped on the berm and then slowed down. He said the officer quizzed him about what kinds of drugs he had in the car, saying it would be much easier to confess before other officers and a drug-sniffing dog arrived. Peters insisted he had no drugs. As promised, other officers and the dog were summoned.
“I see what they’re doing, but I think it’s kind of dangerous,” Peters said. “It’s one thing to do this on a 25 mph road, it’s another on a busy interstate. I think it’s a violation to just be pulled over and searched.”
Ric Simmons, a law professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, said police are allowed to deceive people, thus the fake checkpoint was legal.
“They can lie to anybody,” Simmons said.
Prominent Cleveland civil rights attorney Terry Gilbert thinks the reason police stopped Peters is questionable. Gilbert said police are allowed to deceive suspects, but questioned the practice of lying to motorists about a fake drug checkpoint on a busy highway.
“I don’t think it accomplishes any public safety goals,” Gilbert said. “I don’t think it’s good to mislead the population for any reason if you’re a government agency.”
Michael Benza, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, said motorists often do not know their rights. You must stop when an officer pulls you over for a traffic violation, but it does not necessarily mean they can search your car without your permission. Police need to be able to provide a judge with a legal and valid reason for why they ordered a search of your car.”