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Harford County state's attorney defends sheriff's heroin 'checkpoint'

Harford County State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly says a Nov. 24 heroin saturation patrol initiated by Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler was "public outreach," not a series of full-blown checkpoints used to arrest people suspected of possession heroin or other illegal drugs.

The patrol, which Gahler's office referred to in a media release as a "check points," but which the sheriff himself said was not at all like a drunk driving enforcement initiative, has received some criticism regarding possible civil liberties violations.

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In a phone interview earlier this week, Cassilly agreed with the Sheriff's Office position, saying it was not a real "checkpoint" in which all drivers are pulled over.

"To me, this was really more of a public outreach type of thing, to alert people more to the problem," he said.

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He also defended the idea of checkpoints in general, calling them appropriate, if drivers are allowed to opt out of the checkpoint by turning onto another street and other guidelines are followed.

"The checkpoint is a reasonable basis to do a detention and that goes back to the idea of doing a drunk-driving checkpoint," Cassilly said about the concept.

"There are certain guidelines for setting up a checkpoint, whether it's a drunk-driving or drug checkpoint," Cassilly said.

The state's Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force is suggesting "escalating law enforcement options" as part of the statewide fight against heroin, in its final report sent Tuesday to Gov. Larry Hogan.

A day after the action, the Sheriff's Office announced it had conducted a "heroin enforcement saturation detail," with no one being required to stop directly, as police officers, with drug sniffing K-9 dogs standing by, put up traffic cones and flashing message boards on several major highways in the county and in high crime neighborhoods.

Criticism of the patrols spread online after a video posted on YouTube showed one of the flashing message boards used to warn drivers that police and K-9 dogs were present. TheFreeThoughtProject.com wrote that drivers were "subject to unconstitutional searches and seizures [Nov. 24] in a massive and unannounced police crackdown."

The Frederick News-Post, which has also tracked heroin abuse in Frederick County, wrote an editorial on the checkpoint this week saying the patrol "runs counter to a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that addressed the constitutionality of police checkpoints" and arguing it is simply not a productive use of law enforcement time, despite Sheriff Jeff Gahler trying "his best not to violate the high court's decision."

Gahler, however, said the patrol simply featured extra messages related to heroin and offered drivers pamphlets about heroin awareness and drug addiction.

"No one was stopped at the checkpoint. The signs were more increasing awareness," he said last week. "It was nothing like a DUI checkpoint."

They were conducted on Route 152, Route 1, Route 24 and Route 40, as deputies were focused "on areas known for drug trafficking and drugged driving," according to the Sheriff's Office.

In a response to earlier emailed questions received Tuesday around 5:20 p.m., Sheriff's Office Capt. Lee Dunbar, commander of the Harford County Drug Task Force which conducted the operation, said it will continue.

"Yes, we are planning more checkpoints in the future to thwart the drugged driver and as an ongoing effort in our fight against the heroin epidemic," Dunbar wrote.

He also explained how the dogs were deployed:

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"Yes, K-9s were utilized during this operation. A total of six K-9s were assigned to this detail. K-9s were utilized to scan vehicles that were legally stopped where Probable Cause or a Reasonable Articulable Suspicion existed in search of illegal drugs/controlled dangerous substances."

Gahler has previously said he does not believe arresting those addicted to heroin is the solution, although the Sheriff's Office has been targeting those who deal drugs, sending narcotics detectives to every overdose call received from the county's 911 Center.

According to the Sheriff's Office, those charged in last week's heroin saturation patrols included:

Anthony Serio, 25, of Ferguson Road in Joppa, was accused of possessing drugs.

Angelo Jose Ricardo, 34, of Primrose Place in Belcamp, was accused of possessing drugs.

Sean Russell Tyree, 24, of Garnette Road in Joppa, was accused of possessing an illegal weapon.

Garrett Lee Sheckells, 31, of Rocksberry Court in Joppa, was arrested on an active warrant.

Amber Noel Blische-Rihel, 37, of Holabird Avenue in Dundalk, was accused of possessing drugs.

Brian James Cameron, 21, of Havre de Grace, was accused of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Stuart Lucian Holko, 28, of Cheverly Court in Abingdon, was accused of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Sean Schmidt, 18, was arrested on an active warrant.

Ronald James Slavin Jr., 28, of Makard Road in Sacramento, Calif., was accused of felony possession of a large amount of drugs and possession with intent to distribute drugs.

Richard Smith, 69, of Four Seasons Court in Dundalk, was arrested on an active warrant.

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