Legislators push bill to end sobriety checkpoints in N.H.

Monitor staff
Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A bill to ban police sobriety checkpoints in New Hampshire earned the recommendation of a House committee Tuesday, advancing a dispute over whether the stops are an intrusive overreach by law enforcement or a necessary practice to deter drunken driving.

Since 2003, state and local police have carried out the checkpoints, blocking off stretches of roads and briefly detaining drivers to determine their sobriety. Mandatory stops without probable cause would not ordinarily pass muster under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unlawful search and seizure, but the Supreme Court has exempted the checks in the name of public safety.

Police departments argue the stops, which can detain hundreds in a night, are a strong deterrent against drunken driving. But some have expressed concern nonetheless. Some point to low arrest rates; a review by the Monitor in June found that since 2006, fewer than 1 percent of drivers have been charged with driving while intoxicated. And of 61 people arrested in 2016 at checkpoints, only 29 were charged with DWI, the review found.

Others have pointed to high costs associated with the checkpoints – officers are often paid overtime, which adds future burdens to the state retirement system. The checkpoints are also partially financed with federal money.

For years, the practice has been prohibited under state law unless the departments obtain a Superior Court order in advance; the orders are generally all granted, a Monitor review found. House Bill 1283 would strike the exception for judicial orders, effectively banning sobriety checkpoints altogether.

On Tuesday, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted in favor of the bill, 12-8.

Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, the committee chairman, voted with the majority. He said he’s observed the checkpoints and finds them well-run, but cast his vote over cost concerns.

“They’re not very effective,” he said. “Local departments are no longer participating as widely as they used to.”

But Chief David Goldstein of the Franklin Police Department frames it differently. A state police trooper for 23 years, Goldstein helped initiate the program at its start, back when the judicial orders were not necessary.

To Goldstein, the checkpoints are an important tool to help combat a rising trend in New Hampshire crashes: drunken driving.

Using traffic trends to pinpoint likely thoroughfares for inebriated drivers is more effective than simply patrolling and looking for suspicious driving patterns, Goldstein said.

“The checkpoint puts everything in a specific location, whereas going out and patrolling is a ‘best guess,’ so to speak,” he said.

And Goldstein brushed off concerns with the constitutionality of the practice, pointing to the judicial orders, which, he said, act as search warrants. Additionally, the checkpoints are advertised to the towns they affect in advance, he said.

Above all, the stops are a “moral and logical extension” of a decadeslong national movement to combat drunken driving.

“I think that in the interest of public safety, in the interest of concern for everybody, this minimal intrusion is warranted,” Goldstein said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)