Westminster’s “Drug Checkpoint” Fishing Expedition

June 17 Update: Vincent Carroll wrote about this issue Friday for the Denver Post. He hopes these sorts of checkpoints don’t become a policing habit, and he agrees I make “a number of compelling arguments” in the post below:

On Tuesday night, my wife and I passed two signs stating “Drug Checkpoint Ahead” as we drove northwest on Highway 36, just before the Church Ranch exit. (See yesterday’s initial report.)

Here’s the statement my wife sent to Cory Lamz of the Daily Camera on the matter (a bit of which was quoted in the paper):

Here’s what I saw. We were heading westbound on Highway 36, and we saw two signs that said ‘drug checkpoint ahead.’ We exited on Church Ranch to head home, and there were two cop cars that had two civilian cars pulled over on the shoulder of the highway, just past the exist. They had orange cones flagged out for those cars. The trunks and doors were all open, so they were obviously doing a search. Then we were on Church Ranch, heading west, and we got to the Eagle Landing apartment complex—there’s a traffic light there—and to the left of the traffic light (by the apartment complex), there were four cop cars and four civilian cars. There were two cop cars paired with two civilian cars on each side of that road. There were cops mulling about, trunks open, people standing nearby.

The reporting of Lamz and Joe Rubino adds some important details about what happened:

Westminster police stopped 23 cars and made one arrest at a high-profile drug checkpoint in the Boulder-bound lanes of U.S. 36 on Tuesday night. . . . [T]hree traffic tickets were issued, and one man was arrested on suspicion of felony marijuana possession, [Westminster police investigator Trevor] Materasso said.

Materasso told the reporters that the cars were pulled over “for some identified violation,” but that’s obvious nonsense. If the cars had been pulled over for real violations, the police would have issued 22 citations rather than three. Quite obviously, the police pulled over these vehicles on mere pretexts in order to search the cars for drugs. This was a fishing expedition, pure and simple. Or, to put the matter another way, Westminster police used tax dollars to flagrantly violate the rights of Colorado citizens. (And please let nobody claim that these rights violations are fine just because the police can get away with them in court.)

Moreover, assuming that three of the drivers were in fact violating traffic laws, the police could have pulled them over and cited them without the “Drug Checkpoint” setup.

The police, then, pulled over 23 vehicles at a “Drug Checkpoint” and made one arrest. That’s a four percent success rate. And apparently the guy arrested didn’t actually have large amounts of marijuana, or Materasso surely would have trumpeted that fact.

To state these facts a different way, the police pulled over 19 drivers for no significant reason. For the “crime” of going about their business, they were harassed and intimidated by the police. That’s wrong. (And this is not the first time the Westminster police have employed this tactic.)

And how much did this cost taxpayers? Clearly the Westminster Police Department needs a budget cut, if they best way the police can spend a Tuesday night is to harass and intimidate innocent drivers.

Know Your Rights

The silver lining to this incident is that at least it has prompted many Coloradans to talk about police actions and abuses.

Mark Silverstein of the Colorado ACLU told the Camera:

One of the disappointing facts about the state of people’s awareness of civil liberties is many, many, many people don’t know they have the right to say “no” to a search. If a cop stops you and says, “Mind if I look in your trunk?” it’s your choice.

The ACLU offers some good material on the subject. The ACLU advises:

Stop the car in a safe place as quickly as possible. Turn off the car, turn on the internal light, open the window part way and place your hands on the wheel. Upon request, show police your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. If an officer. . . asks to look inside your car, you can refuse to consent to the search. But if police believe your car contains evidence of a crime, your car can be searched without your consent. Both drivers and passengers have the right to remain silent. If you are a passenger, you can ask if you are free to leave. If the officer says yes, sit silently or calmly leave. Even if the officer says no, you have the right to remain silent.

The state ACLU also published a multi-part video; here’s the first part.

The group Flex Your Rights offers the video, Busted: The Citizen’s Guide to Surviving Police Encounters.

Of course the problem of overzealous policing is a concern to citizens on the right as well. Grassroots Radio invited me on Wednesday from 5:30 to 6:30 to discuss the issue; I joined host Ken Clark and Randy Corporon, a defense attorney sitting in for Jason Worley. Listen to Part I (starting at minute 23) and Part II.

I argued the following (starting at minute 33 in the first hour):

Here’s my concern. With these quasi-random checkpoints, either for drugs or alcohol, without any other . . . serious cause of wrongdoing, or reason for the police to think you’ve done something wrong; with things like no-knock raids (which, as we know here in Denver, sometimes the police don’t even get the right address for those); with things like TSA doing these invasive types of searches, even for young children—my fear is that Americans are being conditioned to a state in which, instead of the police officers working for the citizens, and protecting our rights, and being our servants, instead we’re in a state where usually we’re afraid of the police officers, and afraid that we’re going to be intimidated or harassed, even when we’re doing nothing wrong. . . . While I dislike the checkpoint that I witnessed last night, in and of itself, I worry about this growing trend toward—it seems like police have control over the citizens, instead of vice versa.

Corporon, a defense attorney, added some excellent points about asserting one’s rights.

His main advice was to “shut up” if the police are questioning you without the presence of your attorney. He said his biggest headache is when clients call him after they’ve already gone down to the police station and given a statement, without legal representation.

A related video I’ve seen advises, Don’t Talk to the Police. See also my write-up of Boston T. Party’s talk at the University of Colorado about “You and the Police.”

Corporon also advised people never to voluntarily consent to a police search of one’s vehicle. He pointed out that consenting, when the officer has neither cause nor a warrant, only encourages abusive practices.

“Be polite,” Corporon urged.

He pointed out a great reason to roll your window only part-way down: in addition to protecting the driver from overly-intrusive policing, it offers the officer assurance that the driver can’t reach out the window aggressively.

Clark added that his personal practice, as a holder of a concealed carry permit, is to always have his permit in hand with his other paperwork—with his hands on the steering wheel—and to tell the officer right away that he has a permit. (Please note that I’m not an attorney and am not offering legal advice, but merely reporting what others said.)

The upshot is this. As a citizen, you need to assert your rights. By asserting your rights, you encourage decent policing and remind police officers that they work for us, not the other way around. You also need to defend your rights, to speak out against rights violations and injustices. Finally, we need to think seriously about the sort of political system that fosters rights-protecting government activity—and the sort of political system that fosters oppression and systematic rights violations by government agents. Yes, it is a large task, but it is a necessary one if we wish to continue to live in the Land of the Free.

Image: City of Westminster

2 thoughts on “Westminster’s “Drug Checkpoint” Fishing Expedition

  1. Steve B

    OK illicit drugs are against the law and so is illegal immigration and voting by non-US citizens. This drug sweep was set-up in a “corridor known for drug trafficking”.

    Can you imagine a sign posted a block from a polling place in a hispanic neighborhood “known for housing a high concentration of illegal aliens” stating “ICE Checkpoint Ahead”? What if the sign was telling the truth and ICE agents really were stationed “dragnet style” throughout the neighborhood? What if they used traffic stops as a pretense for checking immigration status?

  2. Billll

    When the policeman says “Mind if I search your car?” this is cop talk for “I’m gonna search your car.”
    If you object, be prepared to spend the next hour or so in handcuffs on the side of the road while the judge on call signs the search warrant, and it is carried out to your location. The warrant will be shown to you, and your vehicle will be carefully demolished.

    Upon completion, and having found nothing, you will be told to be on your way, and don’t even mention the slashed upholstery or other damage. If you take too long putting the seats back in to your car, expect to be cited for loitering, impeding traffic, and failure to obey a lawful order to leave the area.

    The government is not your friend, and Officer Friendly, isn’t.

    Any time a citizen says ‘no’ to the government, the situation usually ends with the citizen looking at the wrong end of a gun.

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