‘When You’re Had, You’re Had’

Jason Vorhees / The Telegraph
Cops’ Checkpoint Ruse at Sleepy I-16 Exit Makes Freeway a Shortcut to Jail

By Joe Kovac Jr.  / Originally published March 27, 2011 
The big-city gal had just spent her Friday night in the Twiggs County jail. Saturday morning found her out on bail, on the phone with the tow-truck folks who’d hauled her car to wherever they haul cars in this God-knows-where Podunk. 

At dusk the evening before, she and three passengers heading east in a late-model Dodge Charger bearing Massachusetts plates, a rental from up Atlanta way, had, for reasons known only to them, pulled off Interstate 16 at a sleepy exit. The exit is home to a few farm houses, hay fields, a distant Baptist church and its cemetery, but nary a store or street light. It is a good bet that the Savannah-bound travelers' choice of off-ramp had been influenced by the flashing signs near the exit that declared, “License Check” and “DUI Checkpoint Ahead.” That and perhaps the 2 pounds of marijuana in their trunk.

They probably figured they’d hop off the freeway, hit some in-the-sticks highway for a few miles and jump back on the main road, in the process bypassing a potentially unpleasant encounter with the cops.

Little did they know, even though there were orange road-work barrels funneling interstate traffic to a single lane, and a pair of patrol cars with strobes blazing beyond the overpass ahead, the barrels were for an actual construction zone and the police cars were empty. The real checkpoint was at the top of the doglegged off-ramp. The cops were waiting around a bend in the exit, invisible until it was too late to turn back.

So it was last weekend a good 25 miles southeast of Macon that Exit 27, which leads to Mud Boggin Road if you go one way on Ga. 358 and Chance Road if you head the other, became the decidedly unsophisticated spot where those down on their luck and those merely pushing it hit the jackpot of their own demise.

Had the souls detained and searched cared to turn and look back down the ramp, they could scarcely have missed noticing too late as it were the hot-red “Wrong Way” sign staring back at them.

Not that they’d have grasped the irony. After all, as 74 of them did over a two-day span, they’d just chauffeured themselves to arrest.

“When you’re had, you’re had,” was how Twiggs sheriff’s Chief Deputy Billy Boney put it. Boney, a veteran highway patrolman, oversaw the ruse that some dubbed “Operation Wrong Exit.”

And on Saturday morning a week ago, the very-much-had city woman in search of her rented Dodge Charger had dialed up the towing company for directions to the impound yard.

“Where,” the woman, a Chicagoan who’d recently moved to Atlanta, wanted to know, “do I get on the subway?”

Do what?

“Ma’am,” Tom Brown of Brown’s Wrecker Service told her, “you’re in the middle of nowhere.”

* * *

For the police, few things are as delicious as lawbreakers who unwittingly tell on themselves. Not that offenders typically don’t. It’s just that they don’t often do so in assembly-line fashion.

For about 20 hours over two days, the off-ramp resembled a drive-through episode of “Cops.” It was the policing equivalent of hunting on a baited field.
Twiggs deputies have all but perfected the reel-’em-in tactic in recent years after fielding complaints of triple-digit speeders and weaving drivers blowing up and down I-16 to and from Savannah. The craziness seemed to peak around St. Patrick’s Day.

“We put two and two together and realized, ‘We’ve got an interstate full of drunks and yahoos,’ ” said Twiggs sheriff’s Maj. Jamie McDaniel, who spearheaded this year’s crackdown assisted by two dozen or so officers and a few drug-sniffing dogs from a handful of midstate law enforcement agencies.

Selecting the checkpoint location was key. Exit 27’s emptiness proved perfect. Sometimes, several minutes passed between exiting cars. Police weren’t bombarded by long lines of autos because there is nothing there, and pretty much no reason to pull off unless you live nearby or you’re doing something you shouldn’t.

As a deputy told a woman whose car was being searched, “There’s nothing at this exit. There’s no bathroom, no gas station, no restaurant. There’s nothing here but police.”

And they were busy. Twenty-one of the 74 arrested travelers, many of whom were slapped with multiple charges or citations, were jailed for pot possession. Thirty-seven were cited for suspended licenses and 36 for open-container violations, and four were locked up for alleged drunken driving. In all, 150 citations were issued for things like speeding, not wearing seat belts, even littering.

The latter was where two game wardens in full camouflage figured in. They staked out the bushes at the base of the exit ramp, watching for flung-out contraband pot, pills, beer cans or folks switching drivers out of sight of the officers up around the off-ramp’s curve.

“Some people just aren’t real bright,” said Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, who was on hand observing.

“You can’t argue with the results,” he added. “Anything we can do to make the roads safer for the motoring public within the limits of the law we’re gonna do it. We have done exit-ramp road checks all over this state. ... I’m not aware of a case that has been thrown out because of this type of operation.”

* * *

The first big catch of the day on Friday tooled up in a ragged-out silver Mercedes. It was from Macon, bound for “my auntie’s in Eastman,” its 20-ish driver said after being asked to step to the front of the car.

“You don’t get to Eastman this way,” a cop said.

Then the officer sidled over to the passenger, still in the car and sporting a No. 7 Atlanta Falcons jersey with “Vick” on back. “Where y’all going?” the cop asked.

South Carolina, the passenger said, fidgeting with his crotch. He was asked to step out of the car, whereupon a plastic Wal-Mart sack with half a pound of pot stuffed inside was fished from his shorts.

About that time, around 3:30 p.m., a Subaru Outback with Tennessee plates rolled in. The driver, 25, had a suspended license. His passenger, his 23-year-old girlfriend, had a license but was drunk. Twice the legal limit.

“Are you OK to drive,” a cop had asked her when the couple arrived.

“I’m fine. I had, like, two beers,” she’d said. Officers pulled two cases of Bud Light and another of Natural Light from the back seat. She and her boyfriend were not allowed to leave until she sobered up. Six hours later.

While they waited, the boyfriend was informed that, had he never left the interstate, there were no cops lying in wait.

“Aw, no. Oh, no,” he said, cracking a good-natured grin.

Then a chuckle. “That’s awesome,” he said. “They got me.”

* * *

Most passers-through were locals. They flashed their licenses and, by and large, breezed on.

When a woman driving a van from nearby Mount Zion Baptist Church flashed her license, she smiled and, before being waved along, said, “The sheriff is a member of our church. We’re gonna pull some rank.”

The ones who turned Exit 27 into a detour of their own undoing were usually the out-of-towners. But not always.

A young woman from just across the interstate was pinched for Oxycontin possession. She cruised up in a dusty silver Mustang with pills in her front seat and an infant in the back.

A cop eyeballed her. “A frickin’ newborn baby in the back seat and she’s popping pills,” he said. “Pathetic.”

After dark Friday, a late-model Audi eased up to the checkpoint. A man was driving. A woman was riding with him. She had to pee. Then she did. In her seat. Nerves. There was wee-wee in her seat and, wouldn’t you know, weed in her purse.

“Why,” an officer asked, “would you give me consent to search your purse if you knew you had marijuana in it?”

“Oh,” she said.

She and the driver were from Atlanta. Dejected, his head on the steering wheel and the empty seat beside him soaked, he sat in the car waiting for his companion to be carted to jail. Then he was clued in, told that if he had stayed on I-16 he would have sailed on unencumbered.

“No comment,” he said.

* * *

When a Nissan Pathfinder stopped, its Atlanta-area driver said he was Statesboro bound, said he’d just pulled off for gas. Trouble was, his fuel gauge was pegged on full and his SUV reeked of just-smoked grass.

“I’m looking at the gas gauge and I start to laugh,” the cop who cuffed him said. “I’m thinking, ‘Let’s try another story.’ ”

Another customer wanted to know why a drug dog was so interested in a passenger-side door on his Dodge Durango.

“Well,” Twiggs deputy Marcus Baker replied, “they don’t alert on Kibbles ’n Bits.”

Baker, a slim 33-year-old who graduated from Georgia Southern a decade ago with a criminal justice degree, worked a few retail gigs when he got out of school. “I can sell nails, bleach, socks,” he said.

Like the better patrol cops, he can also chat up week-old roadkill. Friday he asked one driver, “There’s no guns, knives, rocket launchers, kids tied up in the trunk ... are there?”

Anything to get folks talking.

“But I don’t listen to what they say,” Baker said. “I listen to how they say it.”

The thing was, at the chicanery checkpoint, there wasn’t much for a duped driver to say other than, “My bad.”

Saturday afternoon, a 1995 Ford Taurus wagon rattled in with a blue-jeaned, no-shoed, beer-drinking good ole boy from Cartersville at the helm. His license had been suspended and the beer on board didn’t help matters.

After he was handcuffed and escorted to a holding pen in an air-conditioned cargo trailer nearby, the one of his two passengers who wasn’t arrested was apprised of the road-check deception.

“That is funny,” said the passenger, who’d wanted to run and tell the driver, share a laugh. But they wouldn’t let him in the trailer to see his buddy.
“This is too good,” he went on. “Me, I’m not dumb enough to drive without a license. But he seen the ‘License Check Ahead’ sign and said, ‘Oh, s---! I gotta get off here.

Later, waiting on a lift from his girlfriend who lives in Dublin, he called someone on his cell phone.

“You know the funniest part?” he told them, dying to deliver the punch line. “The interstate wasn’t even blocked!”

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