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."

Though the drug task force has not released its figures on the number of stops or resulting arrests, Schmalz estimates that hundreds of drivers were stopped during the two-day operation. And he concedes that the majority of those stops involved drivers heading to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He adds that it's becoming more common for law-enforcement agencies to organize checkpoint operations when they expect heavy tourist traffic. Just a few weeks before the effort on Highway 145, Schmalz had participated in a similar program that primarily snagged Jeep enthusiasts traveling across Southern Colorado on their way to a rally in Moab.

Labowskie is one of two plaintiffs in a lawsuit, filed on May 24 in U.S. District Court in Denver, alleging that Road Block/No Road Block violated his Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure and singled out festival attendees; he hopes to get permission from the court to turn the case into a class-action suit. The three counties and two cities whose officers were involved in the operation, as well as the drug task force, are named as defendants.

The other plaintiff is Planet Bluegrass, the festival's Lyons-based parent company, which further complains that its business was jeopardized by the police operation because some of the festival's expected guests were either too scared of the checkpoint -- or too incarcerated -- to complete their journey.

According to Planet Bluegrass president Craig Ferguson, however, recouping financial losses is a secondary goal. "Our largest focus is on protecting the rights of our customers more than any personal business claim," says Ferguson. "I am interested in determining whether or not our festivalgoers had their rights violated by being pulled over and questioned about narcotics with no probable cause to do so. I hate to think that this is the law of the land -- that any agency can just pull people over to see if they have drugs or if they've filed their tax return. Yes, transporting drugs is illegal. But so is fraudulently pulling someone over to see if they have any overdue library books."

What is most troubling to Labowskie is that he was duped into believing he would face a traditional roadblock -- the kind where every single car is stopped, as in a DUI roadblock. In Labowskie's case, the scare tactics worked. If he'd kept his place in line, followed the speed limit and not thrown anything out the window, he probably would have been waved through the checkpoint without having to stop.

Yet, according to Joe Olt, a district attorney for the 22nd Judicial District, while such deception may be disturbing to some, it is not illegal. "Do you know the ruse where a police department will set up a pawnshop and then arrest the people who come in to sell illegal goods?" he asks. "Or -- the one that I like -- where they tell you you've won a ticket to the World Series, but you just have to pick it up. You think you're going to get your series ticket, but you leave with a serious ticket. The point is there are a million things a sheriff can do within the confines of what the Constitution allows. There wasn't any sinister motive here. The task force did not induce anyone to do anything specific."

Olt also rebukes the claim that festival attendees were specifically targeted by the operation. "From what I understand, there was absolutely no profiling going on at all. It was just a matter of watching people create an illegal act, whether it was having improper license plates, expired tags, the basic broken tail lights. If there was something wrong, they were stopped. And if there was evidence that there was something else wrong, that was investigated."

If the case does come before a judge and jury, so, too, will a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision -- made just a few weeks after the task force's effort in Rico -- which says that while sobriety roadblocks are constitutional, checkpoints designed to catch drug offenders and those committing other crimes do, in fact, violate the Fourth Amendment. Of course, this will most likely introduce a semantic hodgepodge as both sides disagree about the definition of a checkpoint. The confusion seems implicit even in Operation Road Block/No Road Block's very name.

"I think we are all raised to think of a roadblock as road that is blocked," says Schmalz. "This checkpoint -- well, not really checkpoint, but this station -- was strictly designed for traffic violations."

Whatever the fate of the lawsuit, Ferguson feels that he's accomplished something by filing it. Law-enforcement officials have told the festival planners that they don't intend to repeat last year's activities during this year's festival, opting instead for more routine patrolling and, possibly, one good, old-fashioned DUI roadblock on the festival's flight path.

"It's a relief," Ferguson says. "We haven't seen anything in writing. And it's been difficult to have a phone call returned, let alone sit down for a little man-to-man discussion about what went on last year and what will happen in the future. But we will just have to take them on their word and see what happens.

"The fact of the matter is, I don't consider the Telluride Bluegrass Festival to be a haven for criminals," he adds. "And I don't think the town of Telluride does, either."

As for Labowskie, who eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor drug possession, he'll be packing up his truck again this year for the festival, which takes place June 21-24.

"Even though some of my feelings about some of the law enforcement around here have changed, the festival hasn't," he says. "It's been a part of my life for the past ten years and will continue to be, no matter what I have to do to get there."

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Laura Bond
Contact: Laura Bond