IRON COUNTY, Utah – A controversial police tactic, designed to help cops nab drivers toting or using drugs and alcohol on the road, has been temporarily shelved in Iron County but remains vibrant throughout the rest of the state.
If Iron County Attorney Scott M. Burns has his way, the surveillance maneuver, dubbed the “no-block roadblock,” will remain on the shelf permanently.
Utah Highway Patrol troopers regularly conduct “no-block roadblocks” that consist of strategically placed officers and a sign set up along the highway shoulder. Sign messages reading “drug-sniffing dog ahead,” or “narcotics officers, checkpoint up ahead,” are the normal bait, UHP spokesman Chris Kramer said.
Troopers examine cars passing the sign and watch for drivers who behave suspiciously. Kramer cited obvious examples like flipping a U-turn or throwing things out a car window as reasons cars would be pulled over.
Other less blatant but still suspicious offenders are followed and are pulled over if they disobey any minor traffic law. Troopers then conduct a routine traffic stop, although they are often shadowed by a drug-sniffing canine while sidling up to a stopped vehicle.
“Those dogs can pick up any sign of drugs even when they’re outside the car,” Kramer said. If the dogs sniff something suspicious it gives troopers probable cause to rifle through the vehicle, he said.
Under Utah law police agencies must garner a judge’s approval before conducting a roadblock. With a court setting specific guidelines including dates, duration and purpose for the traffic checks, agencies can use roadblocks. Burns says the UHP never receives court permission for “no-block roadblocks,” making the resulting arrests illegal.
Kramer argues the signs don’t constitute roadblocks but merely trick would-be drug users and dealers; thus his department doesn’t need court approval.
“It’s not a roadblock because we’re not stopping traffic,” he said.
Burns doesn’t buy the argument.
“My concern is that this is an attempt to circumvent the statute, and if it is, I’m confident that an appellate court is not going to allow it to continue,” he said.
Besides the potential violation of state law, Burns says, the process may infringe on constitutional rights involving search and seizure.
“The highway patrol has set forth a plan and will present it to a judge to see if it conforms with the Fourth Amendment,” Burns said.
The pseudo roadblocks, then, should soon become court tested or rejected. Burns said Iron County has four DUI cases pending that stem from arrests derived out of the “no block” searching procedure. When the process is given a judicial once-over it could be reinstated or disallowed altogether. Kramer said the UHP, often in cooperation with local police agencies, will continue to use the “no block” strategy in all other Utah counties as the Iron County legal saga unfolds.
The “no block roadblock” is used with greater frequency in southern Utah, where Kramer says drug syndicates use the rural highways as routes for interstate trafficking.
Iron County Sheriff Dude Benson said he wouldn’t rule out using the “no block” method but is steering clear of the current debate.
“That’s between the county attorney and the highway patrol,” he said. “We’re staying out of it.”