If Juab County Sheriff Dave Carter can't use a roadblock to weed out drinkers and drug users heading for Yuba Dam on Memorial Day weekend, visitors there will be in danger "and I mean serious danger," he said.
Rural law enforcement agencies worry that recent challenges to the constitutionality of roadblocks cuts the ground out from under their attempts to protect the public visiting recreational areas over holiday weekends.Carter began setting up roadblocks at Little Sahara Recreation Area over Easter weekend several years ago. Before that, crowds had swelled to 60,000 and deaths during Easter weekend rose to five.
"Up until a few years ago, we had at least one death out there each year. We had as many as 30 ambulance runs in a weekend. Officers were getting hurt. Beer bottles were being thrown at them.
"Then we started holding roadblocks 24 hours a day. I am convinced that roadblocks enabled us to get that area under control," he said.
Because of the roadblocks, no one has died at Little Sahara in recent years, he said. "We only had five ambulance runs out there last weekend, and they were all minor injuries."
But the Utah Court of Appeals has challenged the constitutionality of roadblocks. For the second time in two weeks, the court overturned a drug conviction stemming from a roadblock, ruling the type of roadblock used constituted unlawful search and seizure and violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Alarmed by the ruling, local agencies are reluctant to use roadblocks until they understand what they are doing wrong.
"Last year we had an officer beat up. We are getting the same kind of situation on Memorial Day at the dam that we used to have at Little Sahara over Easter. It's getting out of control," Carter said.
The recent court ruling determined that 35 police officers from six agencies who got together May 17 to train in the proper use of roadblocks got it wrong.
The roadblock was conducted in I-15 south of Nephi in Juab County. Donald Kitchen, 45, from Salt Lake City, was stopped. When an officer smelled burnt marijuana, Kitchen's truck was searched. Marijuana and cocaine was found and Kitchen was arrested.
The appeals court overturned Kitchen's conviction and sent his case back to a lower court for a retrial, mandating that evidence seized in the roadblock not be used in a second trial.
Two weeks earlier the court overturned a drug conviction stemming from a July 1988 roadblock conducted in the same area by the Utah Highway Patrol. The court ruled that the Constitution prohibits suspicionless, investigatory car searches unless individual state legislatures allow for it. Utah's legislature has not.
I can't protect the public over the holidays without a roadblock, Carter said. "We figure we had over 20,000 people (at Yuba Dam) last year. When three-fourths of them are drinking, a good share of them are using drugs, and you only have a dozen officers to handle them, it's completely out of control. Without a roadblock, there could be complete chaos."