A blog by Miami Criminal Defense Lawyer Brian Tannebaum. Commenting on criminal law issues of local and national interest.

Monday, April 06, 2009

What I Saw On My Vacation: "DRUG CHECK AHEAD."

I consider myself someone pretty up on the news, and so it came as a shock to me when I was driving on Florida's Alligator Alley (I-75 connecting the east and west coast of Florida) to see an electronic sign flashing "DRUG CHECK AHEAD."


Never seen that before.

My first thought was that it was a sign that was being used at some pharmaceutical conference or health care festival and was now pulled over for some maintenance issue.

Then I saw it.

Two cars, well a station wagon with big silver rims and a van, pulled over by two Broward Sheriff's Officers, and then a few hundred feet later, two more vans pulled over.

I assumed this was the DRUG CHECK, AHEAD.

Now I am aware of DUI roadblocks. They are advertised, regulations are printed requiring that "every 4th car,"or something like that be stopped, but this was all new to me.

Were police officers randomly pulling cars over to seek consent to search for drugs?

I think so, but I didn't stop to ask.

I, in my (quote unquote) white SUV with my family and the family dog heading out on vacation, were not stopped.

So who was, stopped?

Did everyone consent? I have to think so. I was thinking, what if I was stopped? Should I put on my lawyer hat, my criminal defense lawyer hat and wait an hour for a dog (which wouldn't make my dog happy)? Or let the officers search through some of my kids toys and ask if the dog food was really dog food?

Is this a frequent occurrence in Broward County, in other counties, other states?

Are we acknowledging the failed war on drugs with new and inventive ways to find, drugs?

Are there regulations on who is stopped? Probably not. Is Delaware v. Prouse, that nuisance of a case that says it's unconstitutional for state police to randomly stop vehicles at a check stop unless there is a justifiable reason for a motorist to be stopped, still good law?

We're all aware of City of Indianapolis v. Edmond where the U.S. Supreme Court dealt with a drug checkpoint. The majority believed it was set up to find drugs. The three dissenting justices believed it was to check driver's licenses and vehicle registration. The drug checkpoints had written rules and like this one in Broward County, were identified with lighted signs reading, "Narcotics Checkpoint -- One Mile Ahead. There was a dog, and if it alerted, your day was done.

But In Michigan Dep't. of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990), where the Court upheld the State's use of highway sobriety checkpoints, the Court, noted its disapproval of a "checkpoint program whose primary purpose was to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing."

The majority concluded that "in determining whether individualized suspicion is required, courts must consider the nature of the interests threatened and their connection to the particular law enforcement practices at issue. The Court is reluctant to add exceptions to the general rule of individualized suspicion where law enforcement officers primarily pursue their general crime control ends."

So are drugs "ordinary criminal wrongdoing," and DUI "extraordinary?" If you live in Florida, you have to say yes.

So case law aside, with domestic and other violent crime on the rise, what are we doing here? (Cue the "drugs lead to violent crime" talking points.)

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court. Read his free ebook The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. To learn more about Brian and his firm, Tannebaum Weiss, please visit www.tannebaumweiss.com


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  1. Drug crimes should be considered "ordinary criminal wrongdoing" (whether drug trafficking is common in your neck of woods or not - though now it's pretty much common everywhere) because there's no present danger to other citizens because you're driving with ten pounds of pot in your car. With alcohol checkpoints you are an active danger on the road and there's some reason to pull you off the road as fast as possible (or that's what courts have cited as their reasoning for allowing them). That's the difference from the cases that are out there.

    In my area the police have started instituting "no refusal" weekends. On major drinking holidays (Super Bowl Sunday, Mardi Gras, etc) they say that if you refuse a breath test they will haul you downtown and get a warrant to do a blood test. I can't decide if that makes people more aware that they can refuse the breath test, or just more apt to consent because they don't want to be arrested.

  2. Brian,

    The LCSO interdiction unit conducts these checkpoint over here on the West Coast. They put out a DOT sign indicating that there is a drug checkpoint ahead and then sit back and watch all the people that pull off the main road for traffic infractions.

    I don't know how that would work on the Alley. Maybe people pulling U-turns.

    Glad to see you back.


  3. I never heard of drug stops before, but I think that in some places throughout the nation we must have such stops to insure safety and punish the people whom do illegal drugs.