I wrote a paper about motor vehicle checkpoints last year. It’s available here. Once in a while, I get asked about so-called ruse checkpoints, a subject that I didn’t address in the paper.
A typical ruse checkpoint might work as follows. Officers deploy large, flashing temporary signs on a divided highway that say “drug checkpoint ahead” and warn that drug dogs are in use. In fact, there isn’t a drug checkpoint ahead, since drug checkpoints are forbidden under City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000) (holding that checkpoints may not be used for general crime control). However, shortly after the signs, there is an exit ramp. Officers closely watch any cars that use that ramp, on the theory that a disproportionate number of those vehicles will be carrying drugs and trying to evade what they think is an upcoming narcotics checkpoint. Officers won’t stop a vehicle just for using the ramp, however, as that action alone probably doesn’t rise to the level of reasonable suspicion. Instead, they’ll look for motor vehicle violations that would justify a stop, or for drivers pitching items from their windows. Once they’ve made a stop, they may use drug-sniffing dogs or other means to determine whether drugs are present in the vehicle. See, e.g., United States v. Rodriguez-Lopez, 444 F.3d 1020 (8th Cir. 2006) (describing a “decoy checkpoint” similar to the foregoing).
Is this procedure consistent with the Fourth Amendment? Courts generally have said that it is, even though it involves police representing that they will be violating the Fourth Amendment by conducting a drug checkpoint. I’m not aware of a North Carolina case on point, so the issue isn’t completely settled here, but the following cases are a sampling of the law in this area.
United States v. Flynn, 309 F.3d 736 (10th Cir. 2002) (stating that “[t]he posting of signs to create a ruse does not constitute illegal police activity,” so when a driver abandoned a bag containing drugs at the top of an exit ramp after seeing ruse checkpoint signs, he did so voluntarily)
People v. Roth, 85 P.3d 571 (Colo. Ct. App. 2003) (following Flynn and holding that “the fictitious drug checkpoint did not constitute an impermissible drug checkpoint”).
State v. Hedgcock, 765 N.W.2d 469 (Neb. 2009) (“We determine that the use of a ruse checkpoint, without an unreasonable seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes, is not unconstitutional simply because it is a ruse.”)
United States v. Carpenter, 462 F.3d 981 (8th Cir. 2006) (holding that when a driver exits just before a ruse checkpoint, that “may be considered as one factor in the totality of circumstances [regarding reasonable suspicion], although it is not a sufficient basis standing alone to justify a seizure”)
United States v. Brugal, 209 F.3d 353 (4th Cir. 2000) (en banc) (officers created a ruse drug checkpoint, then a real license checkpoint at the bottom of the ramp of the exit immediately following the drug checkpoint signs; the court considered a driver’s decision to exit on that particular ramp as a factor in the reasonable suspicion analysis)