State police aim to deter drug traffickers, users with road checkpoints Anne Arundel officials observed operation last month in Finksburg

September 14, 1998|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

Flashing lights on patrol cruisers, road flares and electronic signs warn that a police drug-scan checkpoint is ahead.

Motorists have an immediate choice: Drive on or turn to avoid the slowdown.

For many drivers, it's a minor inconvenience.

For a few, perhaps -- those transporting illegal narcotics -- it could mean risking arrest.

Random checkpoints to deter drug trafficking on state highways have twice been set up on Route 140 this summer to catch or scare off those who would buy heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances in Baltimore and return to sell them in Carroll County, state police say.

Such police operations, which raise public awareness about a social problem and let residents know that law enforcement is doing its part to stem the flow of drugs into their community, are most effective when used randomly and infrequently, said Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman.

"We use certain enforcement efforts on an irregular basis in order to keep the criminals on edge about when those events may occur," he said.

In an Aug. 26 drug checkpoint, troopers and K-9 units were deployed west of Route 91 at Kays Mill Road in Finksburg.

Selection of the site is important, because the courts have ruled that motorists must have an option to turn and avoid entering a checkpoint.

Unlike sobriety checkpoints, where police briefly stop every passing car to determine if a driver has been drinking, drug-scan checkpoints are designed to slow traffic as uniformed and plainclothes troopers, some with binoculars, look for any valid reason to stop vehicles.

Drivers not wearing seat belts, or vehicles with a burned-out taillight, for example, provide troopers with sufficient cause to make a traffic stop.

Troopers also closely monitor escape routes, watching for traffic violations by motorists turning off to avoid a checkpoint.

In the 90-minute operation last month, 16 vehicles were stopped for traffic violations, Shipley said.

If a trooper became suspicious of a driver's actions while writing a ticket or repair order, a police dog was walked around the vehicle to sniff for drugs, he said.

Of the 16 stopped vehicles, five were scanned by the dogs and one Westminster man, 20, was arrested on marijuana charges, Shipley said.

Courts have ruled that using dogs to scan a vehicle is permissible as long as motorists do not have any unusual delay, said Lt. Leonard Armstrong, commander of the Westminster Barracks.

"Five or 10 minutes is not considered unusual, according to the courts," said Armstrong, who helped write state police protocol for sobriety checkpoints in 1983.

Statistics on checkpoint operations, especially the number of arrests, don't begin to tell how effective they may be, but police generally agree that it's an effective law enforcement tool.

"Drug scans are not designed for mass arrests," said Armstrong. "They are one of many enforcement tools that we can use."

State police have used drug scan checkpoints infrequently in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore for about two years, said Shipley.

He said there was no significance to doing two checkpoints in Carroll County this summer.

"It's no secret that the Maryland State Police are making a concerted effort to address the flow of drugs within Carroll County," he said. "We have been working with local police, the state's attorney's office and citizens' groups to stem that flow."

Jack Grant, program manager for traffic safety with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said last week from his office in Alexandria, Va., that drug scan checkpoints, as used by the Maryland State Police, are similar to those federal officers employ at U.S. borders.

"Commercial vehicles entering the United States from Mexico, for example, are scanned by drug dogs, but I'm not aware of any agency using this law enforcement tool" within a local community, he said.

Two larger nearby agencies -- state police in southern Pennsylvania and police in Baltimore County -- do not use drug scan checkpoints, but representatives from Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City police observed last month's operation in Finksburg, Armstrong said.

Officer Debbie Mabe, spokeswoman for Anne Arundel police, said her agency does not plan to adopt the state police operation.

"We use sobriety checkpoints, which also work for spotting and apprehending drug traffickers," she said. "What [state police] are doing doesn't seem like it would enhance what we want to accomplish."

According to spokesmen for Baltimore County and state police in Pennsylvania, drug scans in their jurisdictions are not organized. If an officer or trooper becomes suspicious after stopping a vehicle for a violation, a K-9 unit is called to the scene to do a scan.

As long as there is no significant delay in getting a K-9 unit to respond and do the scan, the courts have ruled in favor of law enforcement, said David Harris, professor at the University of Toledo College of Law, who formerly practiced law in Maryland.

"From what has been described, I don't see any [evidence of illegal searches] to violate the Fourth Amendment," he said.

Shipley said he has learned of no complaints from motorists concerning the recent operations in Carroll County.

"Our personnel closely monitor the impact a drug or sobriety checkpoint has on traffic, and adjustments are made if traffic begins to slow," he said. "The public has been very supportive of our efforts in these areas over the years."

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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