Crouching Sheriff, Hidden Task Force

Stephen Labowskie figured it was going to be a pretty good day.

It was June 14 when Labowskie and other early arrivals were to begin converging on the Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2000, a four-day picking marathon that was expected to draw 10,000 music fans per day. Like many festivalgoers, Labowskie, a thirty-year-old geologist, planned to stay in one of the camps adjoining the festival grounds; early that morning, he'd loaded up his truck in Durango and headed north, hitting state highway 145. It was the same route Labowskie had traveled the previous year on his way to the festival.

As he drove, with windows down and tunes blaring, he looked forward to a long weekend in which his only worries would be finding a private place to brush his teeth and keeping track of the artists scheduled to play. "I was on my way to my vacation," he says. "You get out there on those mountain roads, and it's really like being in God's country. You sit back and enjoy the view. You just don't expect to see anything except for the landscape."

But about a hundred miles into the drive, near the tiny town of Rico, Labowskie came upon something that was clearly not a part of the natural landscape: a large orange sign on the side of the road that read "Narcotics Checkpoint Ahead." About a hundred feet down, he saw another sign; this one said "Drug Detection K-9 in Use."

Worried that the cops at the checkpoint might discover an unresolved traffic ticket he'd picked up in New Mexico -- and then find out about the small amount of pot he was traveling with -- Labowskie took his cue to split.

"As soon as I saw the signs, I felt the whole thing was a violation of my privacy," he says. "It was a situation of fight or flee, right there, and I chose to flee."

Labowskie, who was heading north, made a U-turn into the southbound lane, a move that was spotted by sheriff's deputies in a pair of patrol cars. But rather than write Labowskie a ticket on the spot and allow him to leave -- the usual procedure in traffic stops -- the deputies instructed Labowskie to drive up the road, where he'd receive a summons for his offense. There, he saw a drug dog, a command post and a line of officers who seemed anxious to question him.

"When I saw that German shepherd, I figured it wasn't somebody's pet," he says. "When they started asking me about drugs, I decided they could find a way to get me one way or another. I decided it was in my best interest to cooperate. I let them search my car, and when they asked, I told them I had marijuana. At that point, they said they had probable cause to completely search and pillage every conceivable space in my truck."

Labowskie was arrested for possession of controlled substances and taken to a jail in nearby Montezuma County, where he spent three days behind bars before being released on bond. Although his truck had been impounded, he hitchhiked the rest of the way to Telluride, where he enjoyed the last day and a half of the festival.

Had Labowskie known where to look -- in the bushes, behind the trees, in the anonymous-looking vehicles on the side of the road -- he might have gleaned some clue as to what he had motored into. Approximately twenty officers and deputies from five law-enforcement agencies -- the Montezuma, La Plata and Delores county sheriff's departments, and the Cortez and Mountain Village police departments -- were participating in Operation Road Block/No Road Block, the brainchild of the 22nd Judicial Drug Task Force, an amalgam of regional boys in brown and blue.

While some officers were stationed at the makeshift narcotics checkpoint, others were crouched along the side of the highway, camouflaged, wielding radar equipment, radios, telescopes, binoculars and video cameras in an effort to observe the reactions of drivers as they encountered the big orange signs Labowskie had seen.

According to the operational plan distributed to all members of the 22nd Judicial Drug Task Force -- an entity that calls itself "Catch 22" -- anyone who exhibited "furtive behavior" and/or committed a traffic violation was to be routed to the checkpoint command post for a ticket. "Especially important are traffic violations, illegal weapons and illegal drug offenses," the plan read. Officers were further advised to "take whatever enforcement action is necessary."

"We'd look for people throwing things out of the vehicle. Or people rapidly moving away from the scene," says Shane Schmalz, a Delores County undersheriff who was on the scene during Operation Road Block/No Road Block, and who has been part of several similar efforts in Delores County over the past couple of years. "When our spotters advised us of a violation, we would stop that vehicle. In some cases, we were able to build probable cause from there."