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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Traffic Stops for Cheek Swabs Bring Lawsuit

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (CN) - Reading, Pa. police helped a private contractor pull over innocent drivers to take cheek swabs to check for prescription drugs, a driver claims in court.

Ricardo Nieves sued the City of Reading, its Mayor Vaughn Spencer, Police Chief William Heim, and the Pacific Institute for Research & Evaluation, in Federal Court.

He also sued a John and Jane Doe, allegedly employees of the Pacific Institute.

The Calverton, Md.-based Pacific Institute, a nonprofit with 10 research centers around the country, studies individual and social problems related to alcohol and drugs, according to its website.

The company "receives money from the federal government to research the driving habits of motorists," Nieves says in the lawsuit.

The Pacific Institute was working on a contract with the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, according to Pennsylvania newspaper reports on the bizarre stops.

Nieves claims the company had permission from the mayor and police chief to pull over drivers who had not broken any laws, to test them for prescription drugs and study their behavior.

It happened to him on Dec. 13 as he drove on a public road in Reading, Nieves says.

"A cruiser owned and operated by the City of Reading Police Department was parked by the side of the street with its lights flashing," the lawsuit states.

"Bright orange security cones lined the lane where plaintiff was driving. Plaintiff was in the right hand lane and the lane to plaintiff's left was full of traffic such that he could not pull over to change lanes.

"Defendant [John] Doe stepped out into plaintiff's lane of traffic, blocked his further advance, and flagged him to pull off the public road into a parking lot on Laurel Street."

Nieves had no choice but to drive into the parking lot, where five to seven improvised parking spaces had been created by orange security cones. He pulled into one.

"Nieves reasonably believed under the totality of the circumstances that he was being stopped by the Reading Police Department because of the flashing lights of the police car on the street, the fluorescent orange cones on the street and in the parking lot, and the presence of a police car in the parking lot that was occupied by a police officer," he says in the complaint.

A woman with a clipboard, allegedly a Pacific Institute employee, came up to his car and told him he had done nothing wrong and he was not being "pulled over" - a statement Nieves says was "clearly false."

Jane Doe told him, "the purpose of the stop was a survey of drivers' behavior and that she wanted to take a cheek swab to check for the presence of prescription drugs," according to the lawsuit. She told him he would be paid to do it, Nieves says.

She asked him twice more - the third request Nieves calls coercion - at which point he told her "very firmly, 'No. Thank. You,'" according to the complaint.

She tried to hand him a pamphlet, which he did not accept, then walked away from his car. A Reading police officer in a parked police car then pointed him the way out of the lot, Nieves says.

Nieves claims the city and its police department receive money from the Pacific Institute for letting the private contractor stop drivers without probable cause, which is unconstitutional.

He seeks an injunction and damages for conspiracy to violate the Constitution, constitutional violations and false imprisonment.

He is represented by Aaron Martin of Kennett Square.

Representatives for the city and Pacific Institute could not be reached for comment over the weekend.

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