Crouching Sheriff, Hidden Task Force

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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."

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Laura Bond
Contact: Laura Bond