Committee votes for sobriety

Last modified: 2/3/2012 12:00:00 AM
A House committee voted overwhelmingly yesterday to kill a bill eliminating sobriety checkpoints in New Hampshire after members of law enforcement and the House's Republican leadership spoke against the legislation.

The 12-1 vote by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee recommends that the full House reject the bill when it comes up for a vote on the floor. Republican Rep. Seth Cohn of Canterbury, a co-sponsor of the bill, argued the checkpoints raise constitutional questions by running counter to the Fourth Amendment's outlawing of unreasonable searches and seizures.

Testifying first before the committee, Cohn cited a news report that checkpoints held between Dec. 20, 2011, and New Year's Day yielded 24 arrests on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. An additional 11 people were arrested for driving with a suspended license and 45 people for suspicion of other criminal activities, he said.

"I thought it was a sobriety checkpoint?" Cohn said. "Why are we arresting more people for other issues than we're arresting them for sobriety?

"Under the guise of saying 'You can stop people because we're afraid that they're drunk driving,' we have given carte blanche . . . to allow anyone driving, stopped by one of these checkpoints, to be stopped and arrested for other things."

House Majority Whip Shawn Jasper represented the House's Republican leadership in opposition to the bill, sponsored by Cohn and two other Republicans.

"If there are problems with departments following the law, we need to deal with that. If there are issues you feel are going beyond what was intended, we need to deal with that," Jasper said. But "this is not a case where we should be throwing out sobriety checkpoints."

Jasper said he would expect officers to arrest drivers they stop at the checkpoints for other violations if they have probable cause.

"We don't just stop people and randomly search their cars," Jasper said. "If we want to change the name so no one's offended because we're only supposed to be looking for people who are intoxicated, but in fact we're finding other obvious violations, perhaps that needs to be done."

Jasper said driving a car that can kill people is a privilege, a point that resonated with committee Chairwoman Elaine Swinford, a Barnstead Republican.

"It's not a given that you get a driver's license," Swinford said. "It's a privilege."

Cohn said a dozen states do not conduct sobriety checkpoints, with 10 states prohibiting them by law or under their state constitution. The 1996 New Hampshire law allowing sobriety checkpoints said they could only take place if a court determines they are warranted and satisfy constitutional requirements. Cohn said courts have been rubber-stamping checkpoint requests.

The number of sobriety checkpoints in New Hampshire has grown rapidly in recent years, Cohn said. In 2005, nine law enforcement agencies held 13 checkpoints, he said. By 2009, he said, 39 agencies held 67 checkpoints in the state.

"This has been used, and used more and more," Cohn said. The state purchased a $450,000 vehicle about five years ago specifically for use at checkpoints.

Because police departments must provide advance notice of the checkpoints, roving patrols of officers looking for dangerous drivers are more effective, he said. On July 16, a Portsmouth police checkpoint on the Spaulding Turnpike stopped 339 cars and nobody was reportedly arrested for intoxication, Cohn said.

"It's working in the sense that we're not catching anyone," Cohn said. "There are other methods of solving this problem."

Jasper said in his experience as a Hudson selectman, the checkpoints are more effective than roving patrols, which take officers off the street for hours at a time as they book individual arrests. Peter Thomson, coordinator of the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency, which doles out the federal funding for the checkpoints, said roving patrols are used alongside checkpoints in New Hampshire communities.

"While roving patrols are good, they're not as good as sobriety checkpoints in terms of time," Thomson said.

Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican, said he would normally be in favor of protecting constitutional rights. But the Constitution also says men must surrender some of their natural rights in society to ensure the protection of others, he said. As someone often driving around after midnight, Baldasaro said he often sees cars swerving around and the checkpoints help keep drunken drivers in check.

"I'm on the streets all hours of the night - I just happen to be a bachelor who's got a girlfriend," Baldasaro said. "We've got some people out there who abuse the system."

Police officials at the state and local level also testified against the bill and argued roving patrols are inferior to checkpoints. Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice said the courts have found the checkpoints are constitutional, provided their scope is limited.

"We provide trainings so police officers know exactly what they have to do in order to comply" with the Constitution, Rice said. "If someone felt that a sobriety checkpoint was improper and was not a justifiable intrusion, they can challenge that in court."

Michael Iacopino, who sits on the board of directors of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, argued in favor of the bill. Iacopino said when he turned 18, making him legal at the time to drink and drive, his father told him: "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should."

The same rule should apply to the Legislature, he said. Just because the courts have found the Constitution allows for sobriety checkpoints doesn't mean the state should have them.

"There's a greater issue in all the minutiae you've gotten into, and that is our right to be free from unreasonable seizures," Iacopino said.

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


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