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Utah's Checkpoint Alpha
by Daniel Newby, April 6, 2001

On July 2, 2000, a couple days before the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, my family drove up Big Cottonwood Canyon to enjoy the mountain air. Not far up the canyon, signs appeared warning us to prepare to stop and be searched, and that search dogs were in use. In stubborn fashion, I promptly made a U-turn and headed back the way I had come.

An unmarked police vehicle soon pulled out behind our car and followed us down to the mouth of the canyon. There police lights flashed and we were pulled over. An officer in civilian clothes approached our car, asked to see my driver's license and inquired as to why I had avoided the search. In as rational and calm terms as possible, I reminded the officer of the recent Utah Supreme Court decision against such random searches and explained that I did not want to have any part in it.

The officer immediately became defensive. He justified the checkpoint by the number of drugs taken off the street and the safety that was being assured for people like me. I responded that it was very concerning to me that Americans would prefer this type of security over the risks associated with freedom.

The officer explained the difficult situation the police are in: people go up the canyons, do drugs, and kill somebody on the way down, and then everyone demands to know why the police didn't do something to stop it. I could empathize with his predicament, but still did not agree with the supposed remedy.

After some back and forth, the officer walked away from our car and held a discussion with another officer. Upon his return, I was given a warning ticket for making an unsafe U-turn (the officer specified that my violation was not regarding the drug search, which I presume was to avoid any legal action on my part).

As we concluded our debate on whether freedom was more important than efficiency in fighting crime, I learned that we had both served in the military and had law enforcement experience. In fact, he had served in my birth nation of Germany, and my father had served as a police officer in Utah. As human beings we parted on friendly enough terms, but as Americans we parted with the strongest of ideological differences.

As a native of Germany, I had relatives on both sides of the Iron Curtain and also frequented Berlin as a child, passing via train or car between the walls and watchtowers. I vividly remembered the searches, the soldiers with their weapons at the ready, and the intimidation. I remembered Checkpoint Alpha in Helmstedt, where Americans were briefed and prepared for the suffocating ordeal of passage. Those memories made each return to, and moment in, America all the more refreshing and wonderful.

Until July 2, 2000. As I started my car again, visions of East German checkpoints flew through my head and I wondered to myself, "Has Utah really changed this much? Have we become so dependent on security that we no longer value freedom?"

If traffic checkpoints represent an acceptable loss of freedom today, what will be acceptable tomorrow? If a few fundamental rights can be rationalized away to stop the bad guys today, what additional rights will be disregarded tomorrow?

In the February 4, 2000, Utah Supreme Court case I cited, then-Associate Chief Justice Christine Durham poignantly argued that:

"Broad-based, suspicionless inquiries are reminiscent of the much hated and feared general warrants issued by the British Crown in colonial days, where British officers were given blanket authority to search wherever they pleased and for whatever might pique their interest. It was precisely this type of activity that the Fourth Amendment was designed to prohibit. Indeed, the use of general warrants was an important factor giving rise to the American Revolution. This state's early settlers were themselves no strangers to the abuses of general warrants... A free society cannot tolerate such a practice."

These eloquent words fell on deaf ears in Utah's law enforcement community. Exactly one month to the day of this Supreme Court decision, the Utah Highway Patrol (UHP) operated another dragnet traffic checkpoint between Salina and Sigurd in Sevier County in blatant violation of the Supreme Court's decision. The UHP officer in charge even ordered reporters to leave the search area, stating,

"No media is welcome here... This is for troopers and officers only. This is a work area; we don't necessarily want anybody else here."

Dragnet traffic checkpoints continue unabated in Utah.

Two hundred years ago, American sage Benjamin Franklin predicted Utah's growing dilemma: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Utah should not disregard the warnings of Franklin or those who have tasted what it means to pass through Checkpoint Alpha.

# # # # #

Daniel B. Newby wrote this article while he was employed as Director of Operations & Development for the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based public policy research institute.

Permission to reprint this article in whole or in part is granted provided credit is given to the author and to the Sutherland Institute.

Disclaimer: Newby left the Sutherland Institute on January 28, 2003, and has conducted all his efforts since that time as a private citizen.  The Sutherland Institute has officially and publicly disavowed and distanced itself from Newby's political views, tone, and activities.  As a courtesy to the Sutherland Institute, here is their e-mail on the matter.




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