In the drink

At holiday roadside sobriety checkpoints, drivers check in, but they don't always check out. Even ones who are sober.
By OTIS JAMES  |  December 30, 2009


On the night before this past Thanksgiving, Kenny Howe, father of three, was returning home to Worcester. He was a passenger in a truck along with two of his buddies, chilling out while driving down the Salem Turnpike in North Andover. Howe had just lit up a joint, and he and his friends were returning home after having purchased Thanksgiving Day supplies at a nearby Stop & Stop. The truck slowed down as they came upon what they thought was a construction worksite.

It was actually a sobriety checkpoint. Howe never made it home for Thanksgiving, because he died that night while in police custody.

Now imagine it's your vehicle. It's New Year's Eve, about 2 am, and you're driving back home with friends after a party. Everybody's having a good time, and the jokes abound. You've all had a few drinks, but, since you're driving, every other one of yours was a tonic water. So you know you're good to go. Or are you?

Because up ahead is a sign cautioning:


This is the first time you ever actually went though a checkpoint. In the back of your mind, you wonder if these things are even legal under the Fourth Amendment. And it's likely you're not the only one wondering, given the line of cars waiting to get through.

The orange cones funnel traffic into a single lane, which ends with a STOP sign on a sawhorse. The area where you stop is brightly lit with portable floodlights, and several state troopers are walking on either side. As the traffic slowly moves forward, the mood in the car becomes more somber; none of your friends are cracking jokes anymore. The staties walk by a couple of times, glancing menacingly in the windows. Questions race through your head:

"Are all my lights working on the car?"

"Is my inspection sticker up to date?"

"Has everybody got their seatbelts on?"

"Where'd I put that extra bottle of Champagne I didn't bring to the party?"

"I sure hope Steve finished all his stash."

Finally, you reach the head of the line and roll down the window as two troopers walk up to either side of your car. The one on the passenger side inspects your sticker, shines his light inside the car, and then walks around the back. You see him crouch down in your mirror. The other trooper, on your side, shines his flashlight straight into your eyes. You can't help but feel increasingly nervous as he announces, "We're conducting a sobriety checkpoint. Have you had anything to drink tonight, sir?"

Now, while you know you're fine (or are you?), you realize Pete in the back seat is stinking up the entire car with the smell of tequila. Putting on your best game face, you smile and say, "Yes, officer, we all just came from a party, and a couple of us have been drinking."

The trooper leans into your car, elbow on the open window, looking at you right up close, then asks: "Have you had anything to drink tonight . . . sir?"

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