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Bill seeks to end sobriety checkpoints

Sponsors say stops violate rights

For different reasons, a bill doing away with sobriety checkpoints in New Hampshire has the backing of both constitutionally minded lawmakers and a D.C. trade group representing alcohol-serving restaurants.

House Bill 1452 would eliminate the sobriety checkpoints organized by local police departments to catch drunken drivers. A hearing on the bill is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday in Room 204 of the Legislative Office Building.

"My concern is we're giving up our right to travel freely," said Republican Rep. George Lambert of Litchfield, a co-sponsor of the bill. "It allows (the police) to do all kinds of investigations for which they did not have original probable cause."

Lambert and Rep. Seth Cohn of Canterbury, also a freshman Republican, see the checkpoints as running counter to the Fourth Amendment's barring of unreasonable search and seizures. Cohn said the checkpoints give law enforcement "carte blanche to stop people ostensibly for sobriety."

"I'm absolutely against people driving while intoxicated," Cohn said. "This is a road toward a police state."

Both lawmakers say it wasn't their intention, but the bill also is being cheered by the American Beverage Institute, a D.C. trade group headed by Richard Berman, a D.C. lobbyist notorious for his advocacy in favor of big business on issues like smoking and obesity. In its opposition to sobriety checkpoints, the beverage institute represents "America's favorite family chain restaurants," said Managing Director Sarah Longwell.

Longwell said the group's clients want "10 people to come in and have one drink, not one person to come in and have 10 drinks."

For years, the group has opposed sobriety checkpoints on the grounds that they are expensive and ineffective. Instead, Longwell said the group recommends roving patrols of officers on the lookout for dangerous driving.

"The checkpoints seemed like a good idea when nobody knew what they were and there was this element of surprise," Longwell said.

In New Hampshire, police departments must obtain a court order and provide advance public notice of the checkpoint.

Allenstown police Chief Shaun Mulholland, who organizes checkpoints in the Concord area and trains officers on how to administer them, said the checkpoints have been effective, along with other measures, at reducing alcohol-related crashes here and in other states. They are more effective than roving patrols because of their deterrence factor, he said. Drivers may read in the paper that a checkpoint is happening in town on a certain weekend, but they don't know the exact location or the date and time, he said.

Mulholland said a checkpoint stop takes a driver about a minute and 20 seconds, while an average traffic stop takes 10 minutes. If the date on the driver's license is clearly expired, or drug use or other illegal activities are evident from outside the car, the officer may investigate, he said. The officers do not run the driver's license through a state database to check outstanding warrants or violations, he said.

"These people could be wanted for murder for all we know. We're not here to cast this huge net," Mulholland said.

If the drivers say they've had a drink or two, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be asked to get out of the car for an impairment test, Mulholland said.

"It's not just that they've been drinking. It's slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, fumbling with their license," Mulholland said.

Concord police Chief John Duval said the checkpoints target impaired drivers but "inevitably you're going to find other violations that are in plain view and obvious to the officer."

"The notion that they're overly intrusive and time consuming - I would completely disagree with that," he said.

Longwell said a representative from the beverage institute will likely come to New Hampshire to testify in favor of the bill.

"But we didn't have anything to do with it," she said.

Lambert said he had never heard of the institute. Cohn was aware of the group but said he had not spoken to anyone affiliated with it. Sometimes legislation creates "strange bedfellows," Cohn said.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)

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