, Newburyport, MA

November 28, 2012

Suit should prompt closer look at sobriety checkpoints

Newburyport Daily News

---- — 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.

They should look again.

It is not wise to bring members of the public into situations of potential conflict with law enforcement for no good reason. People get nervous, civilians and police officers alike can misinterpret actions or react poorly and, as Howe’s case illustrates, the results can be fatal.

It is likely that Howe’s behavior that fateful night contributed to his death. Had he reacted differently, he probably would have been sent on his way. But the point is there was no reason for Howe to have been stopped at all that night. While it is true that Howe should not have struggled with police, whatever minor infractions he committed that night certainly did not warrant his death.

Police should aggressively pursue all those who are driving erratically or unsafely. Those found to be driving under the influence should be arrested and prosecuted.

That’s not what sobriety checkpoints do. The checkpoints sweep up drivers at random and subject them to close police scrutiny — effectively compelling them to prove their innocence. The number of officers deployed at a checkpoint monitoring traffic on a single road might better serve public safety by patrolling a number of highways and pulling over those drivers actually seen committing offenses.