Maryland Sheriff's Heroin Checkpoints Skirt the Edge of Legality

Drivers in Maryland's Harford County were subjected to a pre-Thanksgiving series of rolling traffic checkpoints aimed at cracking down on heroin. The checkpoints were of dubious legality, but that didn't stop Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler from interfering with motorists' freedom to travel down the road Tuesday in a law enforcement operation that netted primarily small amounts of cash and drugs…and a switchblade knife.

The sheriff's office mounted what it called a "heroin enforcement saturation detail" that used rolling checkpoints to roust motorists on highways and high-crime areas of the county. A video posted on YouTube (below) showed electronic signs flashing, "Heroin check...point ahead...drug K-9 in use."

"This special detail is part of law enforcement's ongoing heroin reduction efforts and focused on conducting vehicle and pedestrian interdiction on major roadways throughout Harford County, as well as in designated Safe Street neighborhoods," a sheriff's office press release explained.

According to the press release, this was an operation of the Harford County Drug Task Force that included 73 law enforcement officers from the sheriff's office, Maryland State Police, Maryland Transportation Authority Police, local police departments, and the DEA.

Checkpoints were conducted along Route 152, Route 1, Route 24 and Route 40, areas "known for drug trafficking and drugged driving," the sheriff's office said.

"We want especially dealers to fear coming to Harford County," Sheriff Gahler told the Baltimore Sun.

The sheriff's goals are understandable, but his methods bump up against the U.S. Constitution. In a 2000 case in Indiana, the U.S. Supreme Court held that traffic checkpoints set up for the sole purpose of enforcing drug laws are illegal because they violate Fourth Amendment proscriptions against unwarranted and unreasonable searches and seizures. (The Supreme Court has upheld alcohol traffic checkpoints because their rationale is public safety, not law enforcement.)

Gahler's intent seems obvious enough. The department's press release makes it clear that the effort was about reducing heroin supplies. Gahler himself said it was aimed at scaring drug dealers, and electronic message boards flashing "Heroin Checkpoint" messages drive home the message. And the DEA was certainly not there to check drivers' licenses and insurance cards.

Another news release Wednesday touted the operation's "successes," which were measured not in terms of traffic citations issued, but in arrests made and drugs and other items seized. It wasn't that impressive — four arrests for illegal drug possession, one for drug distribution; marijuana, opiates, and prescription pills (but no heroin) seized, along with $7,000 cash and the switchblade — but again, it was couched in terms of law enforcement, not public safety.

When it comes to the legality of his rolling checkpoints, Sheriff Gahler talks out of both sides of his mouth. Yes, it is a law enforcement operation aimed at heroin, he claims, but, no, it isn't really, he says when challenged on it.

Sheriff Gahler told the Sun that he thought the operation was legal and that the local state's attorney had approved it. He also said the signs warning of drug law enforcement ahead were only to alert motorists that law enforcement was in the area, and that the checkpoints didn't actually detain or slow drivers because police only pulled over vehicles that were speeding or committing other traffic violations.

"No one was stopped at the checkpoint. The signs were more increasing awareness," Gahler said. "It was nothing like a DUI checkpoint."

Gahler may have been following the example of police in some other states, who have put up signs warning of drug checkpoints, and then detaining drivers they saw attempting illegal turns or throwing items from their cars. In those cases, though, there were no actual checkpoints. Even though the law says cops can't do drug checkpoints, there is nothing to stop them from pretending to set up drug checkpoints and seeing who they can flush out.

Gahler is getting some flak from constituents. Leonard Walker of Bowie wrote in an email tip to the local newspaper that the Constitution indeed proscribes such checkpoints. "I don't know why the Sheriff's Office thought that was justifiable action," he told the Sun Wednesday night. "I understand that there is a heroin problem in Maryland and especially in Harford County," he said, but added: "Sometimes our police officers and public officials get a little overzealous and they end up violating other people's rights."

Gahler said Walker wasn't the only one complaining, and conceded that "you cannot set up a purely drug checkpoint."

"I am very much for protecting people's individual rights while combating the heroin epidemic," he said.

But he's willing to either bump right up to the edge of violating the Fourth Amendment or to engage in mass deception of motorists to do so.

Drug enforcement checkpoints are illegal. If you encounter a drug checkpoint in operation, you may have a Fourth Amendment defense. 

Citizen video of the checkpoints:


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