A Night at the DWI Checkpoint

Where good nights go bad
LOGAN CYRUS
Stretched to its maximum periphery, an eye under the influence will twitch.

The country singer they’ve all come to see had his first big hit a couple of years ago with “Beer With Jesus.” Inside Coyote Joe’s in west Charlotte, it’s hot, the kind of hot that comes when a sold-out crowd sings in big breaths all night long. Faces are flushed. People hold their beers in the air and sing along as Thomas Rhett works them up with another song, “Sorry for the Partying.”

The title is red-blooded sarcasm: “Dear bosses and strangers, gossips and cops; ex-girlfriends and neighbors whose names I won’t drop; to anyone who disapproves of anything we’re
about to do; I’m sorry for the partying … .”

About a mile and a half to the west on Wilkinson Boulevard, in the parking lot of an old restaurant named the Ranch House, 24 uniformed police officers blow into their hands as they gather around Nicholas Bush, the traffic officer for the Freedom Division of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

“They got a sold-out concert at Coyote Joe’s tonight,” Bush tells the officers. “There’s cars still pulling in there.”

A sellout is a big deal for Coyote Joe’s. The 23-year-old Rhett already has a certified platinum album and is poised to become one of the new faces of country. Along with his own work, tonight he’ll cover music from country icon Garth Brooks, rapper Nelly, and rock legend Tom Petty. The crowd leans younger, early twenties, just like the singer. “Free Fallin’” is old-school in here. They sing every word, though, and the venue grows louder and hotter. The young men wear jeans and boots and baseball hats; the young women wear cowboy boots that cover bare legs. The concert is trending on local social media. A Dallas Cowboys cheerleader even tweets that she’s going.

Somewhere in the crowd, a young woman named Mallory is wearing a tan leather jacket and enjoying the show until, like an old-school country song, she finds out that the father of her children is now dating someone else.

At least, that’s what she’ll tell the officers later.

Hotter and hotter the venue gets. Longer and longer Rhett sings. Louder and louder they sing back to him. More and more drinks they order.

It is, as one blogger will later write, “the best show I ever saw inside the doors of Coyote Joe’s.”

Rhett’s “Get Me Some of That” is climbing the Billboard Hot Country charts. This weekend, St. Patrick’s Day weekend, the song’s at No. 13.

Down in the parking lot of the old Ranch House, next to a big bus that’s called the B.A.T. Mobile, two flatbed wrecker trucks beep as they back into position and wait.

Just before 11 p.m., Sgt. Jesse Wood of the DWI Task Force gives the officers their final orders for the night: “You have to stop every car,” he says. “You can’t pick and choose.”

***

It’s strange to know where a checkpoint will be. It presents a conflict. You want to warn the people in the music hall, smiling and dancing with those young, flushed faces. You want to tell them, “Don’t drink and drive.” But then, that’s the point of the setup anyway, to teach a lesson and prevent accidents. In the past two years, five people have died in drunk-driving-related accidents in this area of Charlotte—near the airport on Wilkinson Boulevard—Wood says.

To warn the people in the concert hall would disrupt the new natural order of things, one in which it’s unclear who’s the hunter and who’s the hunted—the cops or the drunks. Every year about 3,000 people are arrested for driving while intoxicated in Mecklenburg County, and one weekend a month, at least a couple of dozen people land in handcuffs at checkpoints such as this around the county. In true most dangerous game fashion, people are adapting. Cops at checkpoints now have to compete with technology. Last winter, they set up a checkpoint on Park Road near the bar-heavy Montford Drive area, and after about 30 minutes, traffic died down to nothing. Through Twitter and text messages, the people in bars learned of the checkpoint, and they took a different route home to elude the cops.

Tonight’s location, just outside a sold-out country concert, is not a trap. It’s more of an unfortunate break for the few who will be caught. The task force scheduled a checkpoint for this district months ago. Bush, the traffic officer, was asked to pick a location. He first settled on Freedom Drive, a few streets over. But road construction has been delayed, and Freedom’s still a mess, so Bush moved the checkpoint here, to Wilkinson, one of the busiest roads leading out of Charlotte to such places as Gastonia and Belmont.

Last night, they set up on Park Road near uptown and they nabbed 12 people for DWI, eight more for drug possession, and a handful of others for concealed weapons or revoked
licenses. The checkpoints this weekend are part of the governor’s “Booze It and Lose It” St. Patrick’s Day campaign. This weekend, Charlotte will play host to events called the “World’s Largest Pub Crawl” and the “South End Craft Beer Crawl.” The officers are almost anti-heroes in a city that plans on partying, end to end, sunrise to sunrise, all weekend long.

***

The first confirmed drunk driver of the night is wearing a backwards-facing Tar Heels hat and tennis shoes. It’s still an hour or so before the concert ends.

They’re set up on both sides of the road. Officers manning the outbound lanes are to communicate on channel 28. Inbound, channel 27. Four or five officers stand in a line, asking for licenses and looking into eyes.

The man in the UNC hat is wearing handcuffs by 11:30. He stands beside the police cruiser while an officer processes the arrest.

“You takin’ me to jail, or what’s up?” Tar Heels hat says.

Yeah, once we get all the paperwork done.

“Where can I stand that ain’t in traffic?” He’s standing in the middle of the lane that’s closed.

There ain’t no traffic where you’re standing.

The man backs up and stands in the grassy median.

“Well, I choose to stand right here,” Tar Heels hat says, his voice growing louder. “It’s my right!”

Moments later, one driver barely cracks his window as he approaches the checkpoint. An officer, holding a flashlight, asks the man to step out of his car. He does. The man isn’t drunk, so the officer asks him why he didn’t just cooperate and roll down his window. The man argues that it was within his rights to do so.

When it’s man vs. officer, man is quick to cling to freedoms.

***

Post-recession Charlotte is a hard place to not have a drink. New restaurants open every month, beer specials happen every night, and new breweries open every couple of months.

Statewide, the number of DWI arrests has been on a steady decline since 2000. But in Mecklenburg County, the numbers go up and down. Last year, 2,782 people were arrested for driving under the influence here, a 10-year low. The year before that, 4,761. The year before that, 3,652. The arrests include people of all races, all ages, all income levels, male and female. Few laws have such a broad reach and such a universal influence as the .08 law. And yet, few laws are as easily forgotten or ignored. Each person’s path to jail starts with the same—and, if they’re of age, perfectly legal—opening line: I had a drink.

From there, their routes diverge. Some go way over the .08 line. Some just barely land across it. Some are alcoholics and permanently drunk. Others just misjudge their own ability to handle liquor. In the best cases, they go to jail. In the worst cases, people die.

Of all the ways to wind up with a DWI arrest, checkpoints might be the most dramatic. They are set up around curves or on the other side of hills, strategically placed to surprise, to change the course of a night and, sometimes, a life. For the happy drunks, the night flips sad. For the already angry, it might actually make them laugh. For the truly lost, though, it’s just another mistake in a lifetime of them.

***

A young man with a military-style haircut is asked to step out of his Ford Explorer. One officer walks with him to run the sobriety tests. Another officer parks the Explorer on the side of the road. A young woman in the passenger’s seat adjusts the rearview mirror to watch the tests.

From the time people take their very first drink, they have theories about drunk-driving tests. Shove gum in your mouth, some will say. Open your windows to let the air flow better … Suck on a penny … If you’re athletic, you can pass … Don’t breathe into the flashlight beam; it can detect alcohol.

Here’s the truth: The officers often know within the first few seconds of the first test. It’s an eye test, and they take either a pen or a finger and put it out to the side of the suspect’s face, extending the eyes to their maximum peripheral location. It isn’t a test to see if suspects can follow the pen (although, if they can’t, that’s a pretty good sign). More simply, an eye under the influence is fatigued, and when it stretches to that point over to the side, a drunk’s eye often will twitch involuntarily.

Most of the other tests are designed to divide attention. A mind under the influence understands one set of instructions, not two. Consider the well-known test of walking the line: The
instructions are to take nine steps forward, slowly, arms to the side, heel to toe, on a line, turn, and come back again.

Then, this one: Stand on one foot, arms to the side, and lift the other foot and count.

Somewhere during the subsequent tests, the officer usually confirms what he or she found in the eye test: drunk or not. The officer will give a field Breathalyzer test to add more evidence. But the official blood-alcohol number doesn’t come until later, when the suspect takes the official Breathalyzer at the jail or, in the case of this checkpoint, the B.A.T. (Breath Alcohol Testing) Mobile—a bus with four stations.

The young man with the military-style cut does the eye test. He walks the line. He stands on one foot. The officer hands him his license. He passed. He jumps back into his Explorer, backs up, and pulls off. The young woman in the passenger’s seat smiles and tosses her hair back over her right shoulder.

***

Just after midnight, Officer Joe Cerdan sends the news down the line of officers: “Concert’s letting out!”

Cerdan is the kind of guy who was probably the first kid in gym class to climb the rope to the ceiling, or the first to jump off the high-dive. He’s the kind of guy who would’ve driven fast in high school.

An officer of 17 years, Cerdan is excitable. He’s a member of the six-person DWI Task Force, and he talks about handing out DWIs like it’s an art form. While he’s testing somebody, he says, his mind is always trying to predict what the defense attorney will say in court, and he wants to have an answer when the time comes. He is also a Drug Recognition Expert, meaning his qualifications go beyond alcohol.

“It’s an immediate gratification,” Cerdan says of arresting someone on a DWI charge, “that you’re doing something for the community.”

As the line of cars begins to grow at the checkpoint, Cerdan starts to try to predict which ones will be driven by drunk drivers: “Oh, yeah, this one looks like a good one,” he says, laughing at his joke while people with wide eyes dig for their licenses.

Not long after the concert lets out, cowboy boots start hitting the ground and walking the line. A young man in a Bass Pro Shops hat is asked to step out of a red Chevrolet Silverado pickup. He passes the tests and smirks at the officers.

At 12:25, Bush, the traffic officer, looks up the hill, and the line stretches 30 cars deep, back to a stoplight. “This is where it starts to get heavy,” he says. He makes the decision to shut down the inbound checkpoint and move all 24 officers to the outbound checkpoint. Channel 28 instead of 27.

Officer Matt Pressley gives a man a field Breathalyzer test. The man blows a .04. “Whatever you had, don’t ever have that twice,” Pressley tells the man before letting him go.

As the clock approaches 1 a.m., the streets are full of people, walking and being tested. Their friends wait in cars or on the side of the road. Most will actually pass. Of the at least 50 people who are asked to step out of the car for tests, only 11 will wind up being arrested for DWI tonight, with four more arrested for underage drinking. Back-to-back vehicles—a white GMC and a yellow Chevrolet Cobalt—pull up with four people in them. The cars reek of alcohol, but in both cases, the drivers step out and prove that they aren’t the ones who’ve been drinking.

But that’s not always the case.

A drunk man steps out of his F-150, insisting he’s not drunk. His name, his arrest record will later show, is Jason. His girlfriend leans on her elbow in the console and looks out the passenger’s side, away from where he’s being tested. She can’t watch.

He’s asked to perform the balance test.

“I can’t do that,” Jason tells the officer. “I’ve had six knee surgeries on both knees.”

“Fine,” the officer tells him, “we’ll just take the field Breathalyzer.”

“OK, wait!” Jason says quickly. “Can I do the one-legged thing?”

His girlfriend turns to watch. He counts to eight or so, and can’t do any more. She lights a cigarette in the truck.

In handcuffs, Jason reconsiders his tactics. He tells the officer his girlfriend is the wife of a high-profile person in Charlotte.

“Oh, really?” the officer says.

“Ex-wife, I mean,” Jason says.

Charm doesn’t work. Neither do appeals for sympathy. Neither does tossing out a name. To the arrestees, tonight might be a life-changing moment. To the officers, it’s just work. They’ll go to bed and wake up and do it again tomorrow.

Jason leans against the hood of the police cruiser. He shouts to his girlfriend. “Honey, call my brother. Tell him to come get my truck.”

She leans down for the phone. The officer approaches her and asks if she wants to drive the truck home. She says she can’t; she’s had too much to drink.

The drunk man sees the officer and the woman talking, so he shouts again, “Hey, she’s not under arrest, is she?”

The officer says no.

“Good, everything’s my fault.”

He keeps talking, rambling. He tells his girlfriend to call his mom. She looks at his cell phone and says, “You’ve got two ‘moms’ in here.”

“Try ’em both,” he says. She shakes her head, takes a puff of a cigarette, and puts on a fleece jacket.

Then, the man who just 10 minutes earlier insisted that he wasn’t drunk, makes one last, simple request.

“Can I have a cigarette?”

No, the officer responds.

“I can’t have a cigarette?”

No.

“Please?”

No.

Jason is taken away to the B.A.T. Mobile. His truck lands on the flatbed wrecker. His girlfriend is left standing on the side of the road at 1:15 a.m., pressing numbers in her phone, trying to find someone who’s awake, so she can explain why she needs a ride home. She shivers against the cold night.

***

"Cocaine!” the call comes out on channel 28.

The checkpoint surprises two men in a car with a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the back seat. When they see the checkpoint ahead, they move their way to the right lane and get in line. Another car pulls in line behind them. The two men throw something out the window. The car behind them happens to be an officer with Alcohol Law Enforcement, and he sees the drugs being hurled from the car.

The two men, one wearing a Carolina Hurricanes hat and one wearing a Charlotte Hornets hat, are sent to opposite ends of the police cruiser to tell their stories. Neither wants to
own up to the cocaine or blame the other one. They’re both taken to jail and charged with felony possession. The case of PBR remains in the back seat, untouched.

***

Around 2 a.m., Mallory, the woman in the tan leather jacket from the concert, tries to take the test. She apologizes every few seconds for little things.

“I’m sorry. It’s just been a lot of drama today,” she tells the officer. “The father of my two kids slept with somebody else. I found that out tonight.”

She tries to stand on one leg, hoisting a foot just a few inches off the ground. She counts, “One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand,” but quickly puts her right foot back down on the ground to hold her balance.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

She tries again. She gets to five this time. “I’m sorry,” she says again.

The officer puts handcuffs on her. “I’m sorry,” she says.

She’s taken back up the hill to the B.A.T. Mobile. Her friends are left to sit on the side of the road. They huddle together with other young women and at least one other young man, all wearing country concert gear, trying to stay warm.

               DWI ARRESTS
                          Mecklenburg Co.           North Carolina
2010*        3,652                           60,367
2011*        4,761                           56,952
2012*        2,782                           51,582
*fiscal year reporting, from July 1 of that year to June 30 of the following year. For instance, the numbers for 2012 are from July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013
*Source: North Carolina Alcohol Facts

One of the young women stands up and walks to the edge of the street to holler across to the officers.

“Can I pee?” she asks. “I don’t know where else to go.”

“Sure,” the officer says before ducking his flashlight into another car.

And so she takes a few steps over to the side of the road, gets her friends to surround her, hikes up her dress, squats, and pees in the grass right there next to the drunk-driving
checkpoint.

As the clock nears 3 a.m., the officers begin to shut down the checkpoint. Up the hill, police cruisers are lined up beside the B.A.T. Mobile, with individual officers waiting for the official tests on their suspects. One by one, they pull out, taking the people to jail—No. 879 carries one man, No. 244 carries another. In the back window of cruiser No. 448, a tiny teddy bear is dressed in a CMPD uniform.

The B.A.T. Mobile is full of drunks. In one of the four stations, Mallory blows into the plastic tube. “You blew over the legal limit,” the officer tells her. The law says suspects have to blow twice, and the lower number will be used. If the story she told at the checkpoint is true, she’s lost a lot tonight: the father of her kids has cheated, her friends are on the side of the road wondering where they can use the bathroom, and her car’s about to be taken away. She blows into the plastic tube again. Over. She’s one of the 11 people arrested tonight on DWI charges.

After what many call the best country concert of the year, the woman tilts her head back and lets it hit the wall, and as she looks up toward the ceiling, a tear falls down from her bloodshot eyes.

Michael Graff is the executive editor of this magazine. He can be reached at michael.graff@charlottemagazine.com.

Categories: By Michael Graff, Feature, Longform, The Buzz