April 6, 2001
Utah's Checkpoint Alpha
By Daniel B. Newby
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
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
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
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
In the February 4, 2000, Utah Supreme Court case I cited,
then-Associate Chief Justice Christine Durham poignantly
"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.