Fake checkpoint nets 3 real-life I-70 pot suspects
UPDATE: The Mesa County District Attorney’s Office dropped charges against Maryann Lepianka on Jan. 3, 2013 for lack of evidence, according to court records approved by now-retired Mesa County District Judge David Bottger, provided by Lepianka and reviewed by The Daily Sentinel.
Records pertaining to Lepianka’s case were later sealed at her request by order of Mesa County District Judge Valerie Robison, according to court records reviewed by The Daily Sentinel.
Local law enforcement used a ruse — flashing-light road signs and all — in the recent arrest of three suspected drug traffickers on Interstate 70.
For their troubles, officers got a 5-pound bag of marijuana.
Alfonso Joe Ceja, 32, of Florence, Calif., along with Paul Pacheco, 25, and Maryann Lepianka, 21, both of Oshkosh, Wis., were jailed Sept. 26 on a variety of drug-related charges as a result of tactics which likely turned heads of all passing motorists.
Drivers headed east on I-70 around noon Sept. 26 near the Colorado-Utah line may have seen a message scrawling from two electronic signs: “Drug Check Point ahead ... be prepared to stop,” according to an arrest affidavit.
The signs were a ruse. While federal and state courts have held that drug checkpoints violate Fourth Amendment protections, they’re lawful as long as they’re fake. Representatives of the Western Colorado Drug Task Force declined to be interviewed about the practice, but insiders insist it isn’t a new tactic for Mesa County law enforcement.
“They’re legal as long as law enforcement has an objectively reasonable basis for the stop when they actually make the stop,” said Mesa County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Rubinstein.
On Sept. 26, one Task Force officer was watching a stretch of I-70 near Rabbit Valley, when one car pulled to the shoulder and stopped, according to the affidavit.
The car had stopped near the bogus checkpoint signs, the affidavit noted.
A man was observed getting out of the passenger side of the vehicle and retrieving what appeared to be a black plastic bag from the trunk.
“Officer advised she witnessed the male passenger take the bag, run across the Interstate and hide it in a bush in the median of the Interstate,” the affidavit said.
As one officer followed the car when it returned to the road, a second officer recovered what was stashed in the bushes: a 5-pound trash bag of marijuana.
Ceja and Pacheco denied having any drugs in the car, which officers observed reeked of marijuana, the affidavit said. Lepianka said she slept through the episode but thought Pacheco had earlier needed to get into the trunk to get his cellphone charger.