Police searches at Illinois truck stop spark questions

| 12/27/2007

For three weeks, John Herrmann has heard questions from truckers worried about whether they should park at his truck stop for the night.

Herrmann, general manager of Flying J truck stop in Effingham, IL, was working during the early morning hours of Nov. 30, when a detail of Effingham County-area law enforcement officers woke several drivers by saying “DEA” and asking to see the inside of their cabs.

The investigation has resulted in no known arrests, but it did spark the ire of truck drivers and raised questions regarding interruptions of mandatory rest periods.

The incident bothered dozens of Land Line readers and Herrmann said he’s heard much discussion of the search on satellite radio trucking shows.

“There’s been a lot of negative publicity over this and we can’t afford to lose any business – especially when the economy is down,” Herrmann said. “We sure don’t want to be known as the hotspot for cops.”

The search didn’t take long.

According to Kendal Balding, police chief in Altamont, IL, his officers and other police officers from the area began inspecting trucks after 6 a.m. in conjunction with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

Herrmann said that only minutes after truckers told him of the police inspections, he contacted Flying J’s legal department at the company’s Ogden, UT, headquarters. After calling other truck stops in the Effingham area, Herrmann found out that police had also searched trucks at a TA and a Petro.

Then, Herrmann said, he approached the officers.

The truck stop certainly wants police to ensure safety and rid the business of any shady patrons, but Herrmann said the law enforcement officers told him “they don’t have to inform me of nothing” when he asked them about their activities that day.

“I was a little upset,” Herrmann said. “And after they were done, they didn’t even come in and talk to me.”

DEA and DHS officials haven’t returned several phone calls from Land Line seeking confirmation of those agencies’ presence during the Nov. 30 searches. Officials at the Effingham Sheriff’s Department have said they aren’t aware of any arrests tied to the searches.

OOIDA Member Rick Donais told Land Line on Nov. 30 that he consented to the search, and saw police officers moving from truck to truck with K-9 units sniffing the outside of truck cabs. Eventually, Donais said, the officers moved to the Wal-Mart retail store parking lot adjacent to the truck stop.

The Illinois State Police are familiar with searching trucks and hours-of-service issues. The agency even has a division of troopers that perform commercial vehicle enforcement. Lt. Dave Beasley, an Illinois State Police spokesman, said his agency didn’t participate in the investigation and wouldn’t comment on another agency’s investigation.

Given a hypothetical scenario similar to the truck stop inspection at Effingham, Beasley said Illinois State Police would notify truck stop management before going truck to truck.

“Before we start waking people up, we want to make sure we have some probable cause or some justified reason for why we’re going to interrupt that person’s sleep period,” Beasley told Land Line. “As long as they’re legally parked, we’re not going to go knocking on doors.”

Beasley said a police search during a driver’s mandatory sleep period could force the driver to note the search, flag it in the logbook and re-start that rest period if the interruption took more than 15 minutes.

“If it takes more than 15 minutes – the way it looks in the regs – you would almost be bound to start over,” Beasley said.

Regardless of logbook and hours-of-service issues, Beasley said state police are also concerned that drivers get the sleep they need before work.

“We’re an active partner in reducing commercial vehicle fatalities,” Beasley said. “It’s a sticky issue if you ask me.”

Trucks are inspected 85,000 times at Illinois roadsides every year, and about 80,000 of those inspections are performed by Illinois State Police, according to Steve Mattioli, division administrator for FMCSA’s Illinois Field office.

When asked whether drivers would need to re-start mandatory sleep hours after a police search, Mattioli referenced FMCSA’s interpretation of Section 395.2 of the federal regs.

Mattioli said drivers wouldn’t necessarily have to restart their mandatory 10 hour off-duty time if the search took only a few minutes, although they would likely need to note the search in the logbook.

“We’ve said before that a short phone call between them and their motor carrier would not disturb their time,” Mattioli said. “A lot of this is going to be a judgment call. If an officer knocked on the door and if I was the driver, I’d note it on the log.”

At the Flying J in Effingham, officials are hopeful that officers knocking on truck doors remain a rarity. Truck stop manager Herrmann said he wants truckers to know they should feel safe and welcome to sleep at night.

“We just want people to know we sure don’t condone this activity,” Herrmann told Land Line. “We didn’t want this to happen, and this is not something we encourage.”

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer