COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The Ohio State Highway Patrol says the agency’s new anti-drug emphasis is paying off with record seizures of heroin, opiates and other illegal substances.
Troopers confiscated 156 pounds of heroin in 2016, a 290 percent increase from 2015, along with record amounts of illegal painkillers and methamphetamines.
The agency is building on a plan developed in 2011 to bring troopers into the state’s efforts to reduce Ohio’s addictions epidemic, said Patrol Lt. Robert Sellers.
“Our No. 1 job is to protect the public,” Sellers said. “It’s to preserve life, and especially with the drug epidemic to stop the drugs wreaking havoc on our communities and neighborhoods.”
Last year, Ohio saw a record 3,050 overdose deaths, a 20 percent increase, with many of those attributed to painkillers and heroin abuse.
The patrol has doubled the number of drug-sniffing dogs to 34 statewide and now trains every trooper in techniques for locating illegal drugs. Troopers are told “to look beyond the license plate” during traffic stops for signs of criminal activity.
The agency has elevated the search for crime along highways to the same level as traffic safety, Sellers said.
A couple of days past Christmas, patrol Sgt. Kurt Beidelschies kept a watchful eye on drivers headed west along Interstate 70 on the west side of Columbus.
Most drivers react the same way to seeing a trooper parked in a highway median, Beidelschies says: they look over, tap their brakes and then check their mirrors to see what the trooper does next.
What Beidelschies looks for is what he calls “the 1 percent of drivers that do something different.” That includes a sudden lane change upon spying the trooper or, upon being pulled over, continue to appear nervous even if they receive only a warning.
Beidelschies and fellow troopers investigated two different truck drivers that day after a drug-sniffing dog “alerted” to the presence of drugs. But nothing was found other than inconsistent driving logs.
The challenge is dealing with the obvious influx of drugs that’s fueling the addictions epidemic, Beidelschies said.
“So it is just going out every day doing your job to the best of your ability and trying your best to make your communities a safer place,” he said.
The efforts haven’t been without hiccups. In May, a Lorain County judge suppressed as evidence more than 200 pounds of marijuana seized by troopers from a motorist along the Ohio Turnpike.
Judge John Miraldi said he was struck that half of a two-trooper team’s seizure of drugs in the past 12 months involved drugs found in cars with out-of-state plates.
“These facts alone present concerns to this court that perhaps this ‘team’ so charged and so successful, may be using traffic stops as a pretext for searches and seizures,” wrote Judge John Miraldi. The prosecutor appealed with a decision pending.
Defense attorney Ian Friedman, representing the defendant in the case, calls the patrol’s efforts well-intended but subject to overreaching.
“We really see it with baseless stops that are nothing more than a pretext to have the vehicles and occupants searched for drugs,” Friedman said.
Sellers said the patrol’s efforts - which have become a national model for other agencies - will continue and that even more drug-sniffing dogs will be added, with plans for a permanent police dog training facility.
“We know we’re not getting it all,” Sellers said. “But we’ve done everything we can to get everything we can find.”
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/andrew-welsh-huggins
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