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Heroin saturation 'checkpoints' in Harford result in 10 arrests, criticism

Heroin saturation 'checkpoints' in Harford result in 10 arrests, criticism
Police in Harford County Tuesday conducted what the Sheriff's Office says was a special heroin enforcement detail at multiple locations that involved rolling highway checkpoints. Ten arrests were reported, four for drug possession. (AEGIS FILE / Baltimore Sun)

The Harford County Sheriff's Office conducted what it calls a "heroin enforcement saturation detail" at multiple locations in Harford County on Tuesday, using what amounted to rolling traffic checkpoints on highways and in high crime neighborhoods to make 10 arrests, four for illegal drug possession.

According to a news release from the Sheriff's Office Wednesday evening, police seized marijuana, opiates, prescription pills and related drug paraphernalia, a switchblade knife and $7,000 in cash. Three people were arrested on outstanding warrants and two others were charged with drinking or drugged driving offenses.

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Six of those arrested were from Harford County, two from Dundalk, one from Somerset County and one from Sacramento, Calif., who was charged with felony possession of a large amount of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute, according to the release.

"This special detail is part of law enforcement's ongoing heroin reduction efforts and focused on conducting vehicle and pedestrian interdiction on major roadways throughout Harford County, as well as in designated Safe Street neighborhoods," the news release states.

The checkpoints raised some eyebrows, however. A short video of one of them, on Route 1 in Fallston near the Baltimore County line, was posted on YouTube, and a frame from the video also was also posted the website of TheFreeThoughtProject.com, which highlights government accountability and possible police misconduct.

"Thousands of innocent motorists were subject to unconstitutional searches and seizures Tuesday in a massive and unannounced police crackdown," reads the caption under the TheFreeThoughtProject.com post.

In a 2000 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case from Indiana that a traffic checkpoint conducted solely for the purpose of interdicting illegal drugs was a violation of the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures

Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said Tuesday's checkpoints, in which officers used traffic cones to slow vehicles and set up variable electronic message boards warning of a "heroin checkpoint," could not be more different from a DUI checkpoint that many motorists are used to, particularly around holidays.

Gahler said Tuesday's operation was legal in his opinion and was approved beforehand by the state's attorney.

"We want especially dealers to fear coming to Harford County," he said.

According to the news release, the operation was conducted by the Harford County Drug Task Force, which is under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff's Office, "along with multiple law enforcement officers," about 73 in all, from the Sheriff's Office, Maryland State Police, Maryland Transportation Authority Police, Havre de Grace Police Department, Aberdeen Police Department, Bel Air Police Department and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Checkpoints were conducted along Route 152, Route 1, Route 24 and Route 40, areas "known for drug trafficking and drugged driving," according to the Sheriff's Office.

Gahler said the officers used the electronic signs and traffic cones to alert motorists that law enforcement was in the area, but no traffic was detained or slowed down directly because of the checkpoint. Police only would pull drivers over if they were speeding or committing other observed traffic violations, he said.

According to the video posted on YouTube, the message board flashed: "Heroin check...point ahead...drug K-9 in use."

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

In an email to newstips@tribune.com, Leonard Walker, of Bowie, questioned the activity, noting that police are not allowed to conduct checkpoints for narcotics like they do for alcohol.

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"I don't know why the Sheriff's Office thought that was justifiable action," Walker said via telephone Wednesday evening. He said he did not post the video to TheFreeThoughtProject.com or YouTube.

"I understand that there is a heroin problem in Maryland and especially in Harford County," he said, but added: "Sometimes our police officers and public officials get a little overzealous and they end up violating other people's rights."

Gahler said he has gotten calls wondering about the operation and agreed that "you cannot set up a purely drug checkpoint."

"I am very much for protecting people's individual rights while combating the heroin epidemic," he said.

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