Every day, nearly 100,000 cars pass the suburban town of Mayfield Heights, Ohio, outside Cleveland, along Interstate 271, and some of them are allegedly trafficking drugs across state lines.
Law enforcement officials there say their hands are tied. It is illegal for them to set up checkpoints to stop drivers randomly and search for drugs. So, instead, they have devised a clever loophole: lie about setting up checkpoints to stop drivers and search for drugs.
The deception, however, has some civil rights groups accusing the police of going too far and virtually entrapping drivers.
Large yellow signs along the highway warn drivers to be prepared to stop and have their cars inspected by police and drug-sniffing dogs. In reality, there are no checkpoints, let alone four-legged assistants. But there are cops waiting and watching for suspicious behavior after drivers read the signs.
The highway, which includes express and local lanes, "is the perfect area for traffickers to travel on, and that makes the perfect area to interdict them," Mayfield Heights assistant prosecutor Dominic Vitantonio told ABC News.com.
Cops are looking for reactions from drivers who see the signs warning of a checkpoint, including crossing a grass median or throwing drugs from the windows of their moving vehicles, Vitantonio said.
At least four suspected drug traffickers were caught in the sting in the first month, Vitantonio said, adding that "the system works."
The motivation is a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that banned police from setting up checkpoints to stop drivers for anything other than drunk driving and trafficking illegal immigrants.
But the "federal courts say there is nothing wrong with leading someone to believe there's going to be a checkpoint," Vitantonio said.
Civil libertarians, however, aren't so sure.
"Maybe they can do it," said Nick Worner, spokesman for the Ohio office of the American Civil Liberties Union. "But should they do it?
"Police need to deceive taxpayers for their own good, but what does the public think? Does it pass the smell test? They allege it's not a checkpoint," he added, "but it's little more than a ruse."
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