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Fake drug checkpoint in Mayfield Heights is legal, experts say

13015472-mmmainBy Mark Gillispie

olice 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.

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