NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

November 28, 2012

Suit should prompt closer look at sobriety checkpoints

A $1.6 million settlement paid by three police agencies in a wrongful death lawsuit is compelling evidence law enforcement needs to reconsider the wisdom of stopping innocent motorists in sobriety checkpoints.

The settlement was paid by the North Andover Police Department, the Essex County Sheriff’s Department and state police in the wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of Kenneth Howe. The 45-year-old Worcester man was in a vehicle stopped Nov. 25, 2009, at a sobriety checkpoint the law enforcement agencies had set up on Route 114. He was involved in a struggle with police and later died in custody.

A trooper saw Howe gesturing in the truck and reached inside to grab his hands. Howe then allegedly struck her, prompting a tussle which ended with him outside the truck. Trooper Jodi Gerardi yelled for help and a combination of police officers and troopers “swarmed” Howe, according to the family’s lawyer, Frances King.

According to the lawsuit, Howe was struck with a baton, handcuffed and shackled. Howe said he could not breathe, but officers never called for medical help until Howe was unresponsive lying on the floor of the Andover barracks of the state police, according to King.

The three police agencies agreed to pay varying portions of the settlement. No police officer or trooper was ever disciplined or faced criminal charges after Howe’s death.

Sheriff Frank Cousins stressed that no one was disciplined or charged and that corrections officers continue to work routinely with state police at sobriety checkpoints.

“There was no wrongdoing from our officer’s standpoint, but no one wants to see anyone die,” Cousins said.

In the wake of Howe’s death and the following lawsuit, state police also reviewed the operation of sobriety checkpoints and “did not find any shortcomings or problems with checkpoint protocol,” a state police spokesman said.

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