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Ohio police department sparks controversy with fake drug checkpoints

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Dec. 16, 2011: Police officers check drivers at a sobriety checkpoint in Escondido, Calif. (AP)

An Ohio law enforcement agency's decision to use fake drug checkpoints to search drivers and their cars for drugs has some residents wondering if it could violate the Fourth Amendment against unlawful searches and seizures.

Police in Cleveland suburb of Mayfield Heights recently posted large yellow signs along Interstate 271 that warned drivers that there was a drug checkpoint ahead, to be prepared to stop and that there was a drug-sniffing police dog in use.

There was no such checkpoint, just police officers waiting to see if any drivers would react suspiciously after seeing the signs.

Authorities say that four people were stopped, with some arrests and drugs seized. They declined to be more specific.

The Plain Dealer in Cleveland reports that some civil rights leaders and at least one person pulled over by police are questioning the tactic.

"I don't think it accomplishes any public safety goals," said Terry Gilbert, a prominent Cleveland civil rights attorney. "I don't think it's good to mislead the population for any reason if you're a government agency."

Nick Worner, a spokesman for the Cleveland office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his office will be looking further into the fake checkpoints to determine whether anyone's rights may be being violated.

Dominic Vitantonio, a Mayfield Heights assistant prosecutor, said the fake checkpoints are legal and a legitimate effort in the war on drugs.

"We should be applauded for doing this," Dominic Vitantonio said. "It's a good thing."

A 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said actual drug checkpoints are not legal and that police can randomly stop cars for just two reasons: to prevent immigrants without legal permission to be in the U.S. and contraband from entering the country and to get drunk drivers off the road.

It's unclear how that ruling would apply to a fake drug checkpoint or whether any other police department in the nation has used similar tactics.

Bill Peters, one of the four drivers pulled over as a result of the fake checkpoint, said he wonders if he was targeted because he has long, unkempt hair.

Peters, of Medina, said he was driving on the interstate when he missed his exit. He pulled over to check his phone for directions, then pulled back onto the freeway when his phone disconnected from the charger, causing him to pull over again to reconnect it, he said.

Soon after returning to the freeway, police pulled him over.

Peters said the officer asked him what kind of drugs he had in the car, saying it would be much easier to confess before other officers and a drug-sniffing dog arrived. Peters insisted he had no drugs. As promised, other officers and the dog were summoned, and Peters agreed to allow his car to be searched.

No drugs were found.

"The last time I checked, it is not against the law to pull over to the side of the road to check directions," said Peters, who added that the officer who stopped him commended him for being safety conscious.

"I see what they're doing, but I think it's kind of dangerous," Peters said. "It's one thing to do this on a 25 mph road; it's another on a busy interstate. I think it's a violation to just be pulled over and searched."

In a statement to Fox8.com, the city of Mayfield Heights defended the phony checkpoints, arguing that they help protect residents and play a role in ridding neighboring communities with drugs that are regularly transported along the interstate.

"The City of Mayfield Heights has not, and will not, violate the law or any individual’s civil rights in this, or any other, effort," the statement read.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Click here for more from Fox8.com.

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