Sometime early this week, Victor Pinho will load his small car with three friends and enough food and water to survive five days camping in a Manchester, Tenn., field alongside 80,000 other Bonnaroo nouveau-hippies. He’ll leave home with a Coleman grill and $40 worth of bread and cheese, hoping to earn a tidy sum selling grilled cheese sandwiches at $1 per sandwich—an idea he discovered while traveling the music festival circuit during summer breaks from the University of Maryland, from which he recently graduated.
Pinho is returning to Tennessee with some trepidation. Three years ago, he made the same journey with friends packed in a rented Winnebago, but they were pulled over by a state trooper near the festival for allegedly going a few miles over the speed limit. The trooper, a generic-looking fellow in his early twenties, asked the group if he could search the RV for drugs. The group of friends said no, of course not. Several more THP officers soon joined the trooper, who said he smelled marijuana in the Winnebago. A cursory search of the RV ensued, and the cops went away empty-handed—but only because the pot was stored in a locked outer compartment for which Pinho was not about to relinquish the keys. “We had everything well-hidden,” says Pinho, who is well schooled in the ways of searches and seizures, having headed his campus NORML organization. “I laughed in the cop’s face because we hadn’t been smoking marijuana. They thought they had a big score. But it didn’t turn out that way, and it kind of pissed them off. They threatened to get out the drug dogs. I told them to do whatever they wanted, but I wasn’t consenting to an unwarranted search. I wasn’t consenting to anything.”
It was a smart move, but if history is any indication, hundreds of Bonnaroo visitors won’t be as fortunate. They’ll either consent to a search or leave their drug stash in plain sight, both of which play into the hands of police lining the routes leading to the festival. The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, as one example, is notorious for waylaying out-of-state travelers as they cruise down I-24 through Clarksville, a supposed high-intensity drug traffic corridor. “We have a drug interdiction team that look for certain flags that I’d rather not share with your readers, for obvious reasons,” says spokesman Ted Denny, whose department has one of the larger drug-sniffing canine units in the state. “We have ways to detect certain types of vehicles that might be carrying drugs. It could be as simple as someone not wearing a seatbelt. When we make the stop, we’ll check to see if drug activity is going on. Then we’ll ask if they’d mind if we searched their vehicle. If they say no, we bring out the dogs.”
The threat of drug dogs is one tactic police use. They’ll also threaten to arrest everyone in the car, not just the driver. Or they’ll say nobody will be arrested if drugs are produced without a search. “Cops play on the inexperience of the kids going to these concerts,” says Ryan McFarland, a Nashville defense attorney who has defended Bonnaroo clients. “They say, ‘We can do this the easy way or the hard way.’ It’s always a tough call for the person involved. They don’t want to be detained longer than they have to be because they’ll miss the concert. But your rights are your rights, and you shouldn’t give them up lightly. Police don’t care. They’re trying to get evidence.”
Naturally, police deny they do anything different during the Bonnaroo weekend. “Business as usual,” says Don Aaron of the Metro Police Department. But defense attorneys—not to mention national NORML leaders and other pro-pot organizations—make sure to keep their Blackberries and cell phones handy because they know police will be bringing them more business this weekend.
Clarksville attorney Jeffry Grimes happened to be driving on I-24 during Bonnaroo weekend last year when he passed a squadron of five Montgomery County deputies camped on the side of the road. “I thought it was overkill,” Grimes says. “They were purposely targeting people going to Bonnaroo because they made the assumption those people were coming through with drugs.”
Even partiers taking extra precautions can fall into police traps. A group of out-of-state kids renting a tour bus for last year’s concert stopped at the Hickory Hollow Mall for something to eat. A strange man asked the group if they needed drugs. They said no. The man then said he’d never seen a rock ’n’ roll tour bus like the guys had rented. He asked if he could take a look inside. “One of the dummies said, ‘Yeah, go ahead and take a look,’ ” attorney Clifton Sobel Jr. remembers. “Sure enough, there was some paraphernalia out and within obvious view. It was a one-hitter or a pipe. Of course, the guy turns out to be a Davidson County undercover agent. He gets everybody out of the bus and on the ground. Here these guys were trying to be smart, not driving, not hurting anybody, as careful as they could be. But they didn’t use common sense and invited a Davidson County cop on board.”
The story has a happy ending—sort of. After paying fines and jumping through some legal hoops, the young men will have their records expunged in September, typical treatment for first-time offenders.
Sobel was unable to argue in court whether the search was illegal—or to discover whether the undercover sting was specifically conducted for Bonnaroo—because his clients, like many, accepted a plea bargain to get through the legal system as quickly as possible. But charges against 24 Bonnaroo fans were dismissed in Warren County because deputies were illegally profiling along Highway 55 near McMinnville in 2003. Attorney John Partin was able to convince Judge Larry Ross that deputies targeted only those travelers with out-of-state plates, which amounted to selective enforcement. Since then, Warren County has abandoned its Bonnaroo enforcement, Partin says.
So what to do to ensure a good time without a lot of police hassle? First of all, don’t act like a college kid. Keep hands and arms inside car windows. Drive the speed limit. Change lanes if you see police have already pulled over somebody—it’s illegal in Tennessee not to unless the passing lane is blocked. Wear seat belts. Make sure headlights and taillights work. Use your turn signal; even though it’s not illegal to fail to signal, cops can use it as an excuse to pull you over.
And whatever you do, refuse consent to search your vehicle. By law, police can detain you only as long as it normally would take to write a ticket and check your registration and license. If drug dogs are unavailable, too bad. Police lose their chance to sniff the outside of your car. Continue to ask police, politely but firmly, if you are free to leave.
“Remember to always say ‘no,’ ” says Nashville attorney Jonathan Street. “Don’t sign anything. There are people giving consent to search their car when they have drugs inside. I don’t know why they do that. Maybe they’re high on drugs when giving consent, which is questionable in itself. They say, ‘No, no, no’ but then sign a form saying ‘yes.’ That’s all police need.”
Make sure that once inside Bonnaroo, you continue to keep your guard up. Clifton Sobel represented a client last year, a pseudo-Rastafarian from Virginia, who collected $1,500 from friends to buy pot at the festival. Returning to camp with something like 50 dime bags shoved into a Dunkin’ Donuts box, he was arrested and charged with distribution, a potential felony that was reduced to a misdemeanor because the Rastafarian was simply the deliveryman. “The DA believed his story and rightfully so,” Sobel says.
To ensure a police-free weekend, Sobel recommends leaving the illegal substances at home. For those who scoff at his suggestion, keep your head low and your drugs lower. Police are mostly looking for the big dealers, but are more than willing to bring down the private user. It’s enough to make smokers like Victor Pinho want to skip Bonnaroo. He wasn’t that impressed when he camped out three years ago. The festival was poorly planned, he says, and too chaotic. “I’m hoping it’s better this year. I’ve heard it’s better. If I don’t like it, I can always leave early.”
But watch it, Victor. You still must depart the festival on Tennessee highways rife with cops ready to ambush people like you—people doing nothing more harmful than looking for the next good time.