In the drink

By OTIS JAMES  |  December 30, 2009

"Shit," you think, "of course I've had something to drink — after all, it's New Year's Eve." You think about pleading the Fifth, and saying nothing. But in this roadside courthouse, that could be as good as a guilty plea. So you give him the standard — but truthful — answer: "I've had only a couple of drinks over the whole night, officer."

"Over the whole night, huh?" he says in a menacing growl. Then, pointing to the right, he adds, "Pull over there."

Congratulations: you've been selected for the secondary-screening area. The party may be over, but your "innocent" night of fun has just begun.

Sobering reality
People talk about the dangers of driving while intoxicated. And they're absolutely correct, as statistics have proven that drunk driving is responsible for thousands of deaths every year in this country. According to a 2009 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report, there were 10,825 "alcohol-impaired driving fatalities" in 2007, 116 of them in Massachusetts. But what doesn't get a lot of attention is how precarious the sobriety checkpoints can be. Sure, very few result in death, as Howe's did. But in terms of civil-rights violations, the absolute power wielded by the police can have dangerous, life-changing results.

The secondary-screening area is further than Howe got. Yes, he was smoking a marijuana cigarette, and worse, he wasn't wearing his seatbelt. But Howe and his friends apparently realized too late that they were at a sobriety checkpoint. Howe's attempts to quickly put out his joint while fastening his seatbelt were observed and, according to the State Police report, deemed furtive.The version of events told by State Police continued as follows: Howe leapt out of the window of the truck, punched an officer in the face, and then attempted to flee. He ran only a short distance before being apprehended, handcuffed, and transported to the State Police barracks. Later, at the barracks, he became unresponsive. After being transported to Lawrence General Hospital, he was pronounced dead.

That's quite different from the series of events presented by the attorney representing Howe's family, based on testimony from the driver, an eyewitness who ended up not facing any charges whatsoever. In this version of the story, Howe was "helped" out of the window by the 10 to 20 troopers present at the roadblock, rather than his jumping out and trying to elude them.

Additionally, there was another, neutral witness to the arrest. As it happens, the North Andover checkpoint was located right outside the offices of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune newspaper. And, by some coincidence, a photographer who decided to work late that night happened to leave for home at almost the exact moment Howe was being arrested. This photographer was able to document the last 10 minutes of the arrest in a series of 43 photos, although he missed the initial takedown.

The bulk of the photos show Howe facedown, lying on his stomach, with his arms handcuffed behind his back, not moving. In many of the photos, four officers are on him; one on each arm, one on his legs, and one kneeling on his back, maintaining a chokehold on him throughout the entire arrest. Howe was eventually allowed to get up, slowly, only to collapse as he was led to a cruiser for transport. At this point, the driver eyewitness was ordered to turn around, and was himself led to a different cruiser for transport.

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