Friday, June 6, 2008

Summer's Here and the Time is Right for ... Getting Busted Going to the Festival (If You're Not Careful)

Summer's Here and the Time is Right for ... Getting Busted Going to the Festival (If You're Not Careful)

By Phillip S. Smith

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With Memorial Day now just a memory, the summer music festival season is on -- and with it, special drug law enforcement aimed at festival goers in what could be called a form of cultural profiling. If years past are any indicator, music lovers should be prepared to encounter everything from announced "Drug Checkpoints" that aren't -- they are instead traps to lure the freaked out -- to real, unconstitutional, highway drug checkpoints masquerading as "safety checks" (complete with drug dogs) to undercover cops working inside the festival grounds themselves.

Nationally known festivals like Bonaroo in Tennessee and Wakarusa in Kansas, as well as countless lesser festivals, especially in rural areas, have drawn special law enforcement efforts in the past. With this year unlikely to be any different, festival goers will need to know their rights and how to exercise them when they encounter the cops.

The police enforcement actions are already getting underway. Last weekend, the 2008 Summer Camp Festival in Chillicothe, Illinois, drew some 13,000 fans to hear a diverse line-up of bands including the Flaming Lips, George Clinton & Parliament/Funkadelic, Blind Melon, the Roots, and the New Pornographers. It also drew city and state police, who claimed 20 drug arrests -- for marijuana, ecstasy, and LSD -- between them in and around the festival.

The police were pleased. "I think a lot of it had to do with all of the agencies getting together before the event and really planning out our attack," Chillicothe Police Chief Steven Maurer told local HOI-19 TV News. "Our goal is to prevent it from coming in and that's what we did a lot of."

Meanwhile, down in northeast Georgia, some other law enforcement agencies had also gotten together to plan an attack. This one wasn't aimed directly at concert-goers, but at the highway-traveling public in general. In what the Northeast Georgian described as "one of the county's largest highway interdiction and safety checks in at least five years," personnel from the Habersham County Sheriff's Office, Northeast Georgia Drug Task Force, Georgia National Guard Counter Drug Task Force, Georgia State Patrol, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia Department of Public Safety Motor Carrier Compliance Unit, Lee Arrendale State Prison, Phillips State Prison and Cornelia Police Department participated in a 24-hour checkpoint on a local highway.

Police bragged about the success of their checkpoint, which netted 74 arrests, 31 of them for drug offenses. "It worked well, I thought," said Habersham County Sheriff De Ray Fincher. "The operation resulted in a seizure of $36,000 in illegal drugs. And a total amount of currency, drugs and vehicles seized is estimated to have a value of $82,000."

Police did write some tickets for traffic offenses, Fincher told WNEG-TV 32 News. "We got a lot of people with no insurance, no driver's license or suspended license," he said. And some pot smokers: "The majority of our cases were marijuana cases; however, we did get several methamphetamine and we got one case of cocaine," Fincher explained.

In a 2000 Supreme Court decision, Indianapolis v. Edmonds, the high court held that indiscriminate highway drug checkpoints were unconstitutional since motorists were being stopped without suspicion for a law enforcement -- not a public safety -- purpose.

But Fincher was open about his constitutionally-suspect highway checkpoint. "We are trying to do everything we can to prevent drug activity in Habersham County, whether it's just passing through or stopping here," he said, noting that drug arrests in the county were on the rise. "That just means we've taken a real aggressive approach to drug enforcement."

"In the wake of the Indianapolis case, law enforcement has tried to figure out ways to still conduct drug checkpoints that comport with that ruling," said Adam Wolf of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. "Intent is the name of the game. If the intent is to conduct a checkpoint basically for law enforcement purposes, that's not okay. If it's for public safety purposes, such as sobriety checkpoints, that is okay."

A constitutional challenge to any given checkpoint would turn on intent, said Wolf. "If it turns out the intent was primarily to be a drug checkpoint, that would be an unreasonable search and not comply with the Constitution," he said. "That kind of checkpoint should be shut down, but it would take someone to challenge it."

Noting Sheriff Fincher's report of cash and goods seized, Wolf suggested the purpose of the checkpoints could really be about something other than law enforcement or public safety. "So often these things are being done to fund law enforcement agencies. Asset forfeiture is really a cash cow," he said.

Whether the checkpoints or other special law enforcement tactics are to raise money, wage the drug war, or indeed for "public safety," experts consulted by the Chronicle sang a remarkably similar song: Be prepared, don't be stupid, and don't give away your rights.

"The most efficient way to get arrested for marijuana possession short of blowing pot smoke in an officer's face is to smoke marijuana while driving or parked in your car, especially on the way to a festival," said Steven Silverman of the civil liberties group Flex Your Rights, which has released a video instructing people how to flex theirs. "You have a minimal expectation of privacy, and it reeks. Officers can smell it, and if they can smell it, that's probable cause to search you."

"Keep your private items out of view," recommended the ACLU's Wolf. A baggie full of weed on the front seat is all the probable cause an officer needs to search the vehicle and arrest the owner.

"The only sure thing to do is not to carry," said Keith Stroup, founder and currently senior counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "But the problem with that is there may or may not be good marijuana available at the festivals. If you're going to bring something with you, keep the quantity as small as possible, and for God's sake, don't smoke in the car!"

If you are stopped at a checkpoint (or pulled over for any reason) and you haven't provided police probable cause to search you or your vehicle, now is the time to exercise your rights. People in such situations should be polite but assertive, the experts said.

"If you are pulled over by police for any reason, the officers are very likely to ask you to consent to a search," said Silverman. "Don't do it. Never, ever consent under any circumstances. It might be couched in terms of a command, but it is a request. If you consent, you are waiving your Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. They won't 'go easier' on you; anything they find, they will confiscate, and arrest you and put you in jail. Don't do their job for them."

"There is no circumstance I can imagine where you should ever consent to a search," agreed NORML's Stroup. "If you give permission, you waive your Fourth Amendment protections. They may say it'll go easier if you cooperate, but that's bullshit. Their only reason for being there is to see if you have contraband and arrest you and put you in jail if you do."

"Just say no to warrantless searches," echoed the ACLU's Wolf. "Officers won't tell you you have the right not to consent, but you do, and it is one that people have held dear since the founding of the Republic."

There are other highway hazards for the unwary festival-goer. Law enforcement can be creative in its unending war on drug users and sellers.

"Anybody driving to see his favorite band should also be aware of fake drug checkpoints," said Silverman. "Drug checkpoints are unconstitutional, but what some sheriffs will do close to festival sites is set up a big 'Drug Checkpoint Ahead' sign, and then watch who turns off the highway at the next ramp or who throws something out his car window. Then they pull them over for littering or failure to signal a lane change or something. If you see such a sign, keep driving -- it's a bluff designed to see who it scares."

"When you see a sign like that, proceed ahead within the speed limit, driving safely through the area," advised Wolf.

Wolf has problems with the harassment of festival-goers that run deeper than particular law enforcement tactics. "Profiling based on race is not okay, profiling based on gender is not okay, and profiling based on the type of concert you attend is not okay," he said. "It's unreasonable and unjustifiable for police to target a group of people because they are going to any particular type of concert."

"Simply having a Grateful Dead sticker or dreadlocks doesn't constitute reasonable suspicion of anything," agreed Silverman.

But in the real world, it can. Festival-goers and other highway travelers need to be aware of their rights, as well as the realities of life in the contemporary US, as they hit the highway this summer.

And one last thing once you actually make it to the festival. "There's a big myth out there that police officers must reveal if they're an undercover cop," said Silverman. "That's wrong, and it's stupid to believe that. Police officers can and do legally lie in doing their jobs. Believing that has probably led to thousands of people being arrested."

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