By Daniel Silliman
The Clayton County Police announced the formation of a new unit, made up of K-9 officers and traffic patrolmen, designed to catch criminals and contraband on the interstates.
"This is another measure that we're taking," Chief Jeff Turner said Tuesday, announcing the new unit. "This is a more concentrated effort." The department's dramatic drug busts in recent months have all been cases of catching sizable shipments as they moved through the county.
Chief Turner said the new "interdiction unit" will patrol I-75, I-85, I-285 and I-675 passing through the county, 24 hours a day, making traffic stops and looking for suspicious people, cars and activities. The 12-member unit has been specially trained to know what to look for, he said.
Sgt. Anthony Thuman, who will jointly command the unit with Lt. Brian Danekes, said many traffic stops will lead to "free air sniffs," where drug-detecting dogs walk around outside a car, and smell for illegal narcotics.
"It's merely a sniff of the exterior of the vehicle," Thuman said.
Steve Frey, a prominent defense attorney and the president of the county bar association, said these types of units treat every passing car as "a free lottery ticket" and lead to invasions of civil rights.
"In my opinion, it's another unwarranted, unreasonable, intrusion into people's lives by police," Frey said. "You'll have what are otherwise innocuous stops turn into full blown drug investigations ... It's just another reason to get you stopped and then convince you that, in order to leave, you have to let them search your car."
Frey said the courts have previously struck down "pretextual traffic stops," saying traffic stops have to be limited "in time and scope" to the original reason for the stop, but recently the conservative United States Supreme Court has ruled the other way, giving police the leeway to move from probable cause for a stop, to probable cause for a search, to probable cause for an arrest.
Asked about possible problems with profiling and possible violations of rights, Turner defended the new interdiction unit, saying his officers are well-trained and their tactics are legal and proven.
"If someone's acting fidgety and nervous, they've probably done something wrong," he said, "and we're definitely going to run the [drug-detecting] dogs."
The unit, he reiterated, will be patrolling for "an array of violations," including traffic violations, not just as an adjunct to the department's narcotics unit.
Turner said police department statistics show four out of every five crimes committed in the county involves a vehicle, and recent federal statistics show the Atlanta area is the number one location for narcotics traffickers.
"Our message here," Turner said, "is you're not going to bring narcotics through Clayton County, not going to bring, not going to use it, and not going to store it in Clayton County."
The department had an interdiction unit sometime in the late 1980s, but it was disbanded. The current unit started training on Saturday and will deploy on the county's interstates on Wednesday.