COLUMBIA — Shannon Smith, a full-time staffer at the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, has worked sobriety checkpoints for nine years. Usually, her job is moving cars off the road if the driver is taken aside for more tests.
It’s an adventure every time.
“You never know what you’re getting into,” she said. “I got in (a car) once, and I wanted to vomit because of the alcohol smell.”
The adventure continued Saturday from 11 p.m. until 3 a.m. during a checkpoint sponsored by the sheriff’s department. When Smith hit the gas to move a truck, it refused to budge. It took her a few seconds to determine the problem.
“The guy put on the emergency brake,” she yelled in frustration. “You don’t put on your emergency brake at a sobriety checkpoint!”
Smith and more than 20 other sheriff’s deputies, along with several officers from the Columbia and Ashland police departments, were clad in orange safety vests. The checkpoint was set up on Missouri 763 just north of town. Officers stopped every northbound car, about 400 total, and diverted them onto Boone Industrial Drive near Kemper Arena.
Deputy Mark Winchester, who supervised the operation, said the Kemper Arena area is good for finding impaired drivers. The officers made five drunken driving arrests during the checkpoint.
“It’s a major traffic thoroughfare,” Winchester said. “There’s a high arrest rate for intoxicated or impaired drivers in this area.”
The most visible officers were stationed at “the line,” where they checked driver identification and looked for initial signs of drunkenness, such as slurred speech or the smell of alcohol.
Five minutes into the checkpoint, about six people had been pulled from the line for further testing.
“I’m encouraged so far,” Winchester said, noting that just because someone looks drunk doesn’t mean they are by the legal standard of .08 blood-alcohol percentage.
An hour in, the officers had their first DWI.
“That’s pretty average,” said Boone County Cpl. Kenton Lewis, as he prepared to drive the suspect and someone else arrested on suspicion of possession of marijuana to Boone County Jail for booking.
Winchester had predicted a busy night, and it was. In addition to the five DWIs, officers also tallied six arrests for driving with a suspended or revoked license; five arrests for possession of marijuana; four arrests for outstanding warrants; three arrests for adult liquor law violations; and one arrest for resisting lawful detention.
The graveyard shift
For Winchester, getting drunk drivers off the road is a passion.
“I thoroughly enjoy working sobriety checkpoints,” he said. “I take great pride in being our department’s DWI guy.”
Boone County Cpl. Megan Martin was fingerprinting people in the parking lot. Martin, a checkpoint veteran, said she gladly gives up her Saturday nights to work.
“Getting drunk individuals off the road is always a plus,” she said. “It lets the community know that you’re out there actively looking.”
For several officers, the motivation was much more simple: “It’s easy money,” said deputy Joe Martin, with a smile.
Overtime is a big motivation for many of the officers. The Missouri Department of Transportation picks up the tab for many departments statewide to conduct checkpoints.
“Most of the police departments you find don’t have overtime to fund this,” said Department of Transportation spokesman Chris Luebbert, who was there to observe the checkpoint. “That’s where we come in to help.”
Several officers said they’d like to see checkpoints conducted more often. The sheriff’s department used to run four per year, but it has reduced the number because of the loss of some grant funding. Before Saturday, the department’s last checkpoint was in October 2006.
Besides the extra pay, a few snacks provided by Mothers Against Drunk Driving help ease the pain of working the graveyard shift. About 15 volunteers distributed heaping piles of sandwiches, cookies, chips and soda.
“All of the officers are very appreciative,” said Tom Kidwell, co-coordinator of MADD’s Boone County chapter. “You get hungry and tired when you’re out this late.”
Betty Kidwell, Tom’s wife and the chapter’s other co-coordinator, said Saturday was the chapter’s seventh sobriety checkpoint since it formed in May 2005. She said they never get tired of staying up late to help the officers.
“These guys are out there risking their lives,” she said.
After sponsoring its own checkpoint this past Thursday, Columbia police brought eight officers to help out Saturday. Sgt. Tim Moriarity said Thursday’s checkpoint was the department’s first in at least 20 years.
“We copied a lot of the stuff (the sheriff’s department has) done,” he said. “We had a pretty good model.”
Saturday was Moriarity’s fifth checkpoint and the second in a week.
“I feel some obligation to help them when they helped us,” he said.
New this year was a “drunk pen,” an area where passengers could wait while their friends were being tested by police. Winchester said the pen — a tent with six chairs roped off with police tape — was meant to keep disruptive people from playing “roadside lawyer” or otherwise bothering officers.
Those relegated to the pen were well-behaved for the most part, though two men did complain about the lack of bathroom facilities at the site, police said.
Ashland police Officer Robert Wescott also contributed to the partnership. He brought along Lucy, a drug-sniffing dog, for her first checkpoint.
Besides the satisfaction of seeing dangerous drivers taken off the road, Tom Kidwell said the night was simply entertaining.
“This is a people-watching thing,” he said. “You see people at their best and people at their worst.”
Smith also said she enjoys watching people at their worst.
“You ever watch ‘COPS’?” Smith asked. “Some of them are that stupid. It’s fun, but honestly it’s for a good cause.”