Senate kills effort to ban sobriety checkpoints on N.H. roads

Monitor staff
Published: 4/19/2018 7:31:19 PM

An effort to ban the use of sobriety checkpoints in New Hampshire died in the Senate on Thursday after a majority rallied behind the practice as a means to prevent auto fatalities.

In a 16-7 decision, the chamber voted down House Bill 1283, which would prohibit the use of the checkpoints by state police departments. Since 2003, those departments have used the technique to block off stretches of roads and briefly detain drivers to determine their sobriety.

Police departments have argued the stops, which can detain hundreds in a night, act as a powerful tool to combat drunken driving. But their use has long proved controversial, with some saying they’re ineffective and others raising constitutional issues of detaining drivers without cause.

Under present state law, the practice is banned unless departments obtain a Superior Court order; the times and location must be advertised in a newspaper in advance.

HB 1283 would have put an end to it. Adopted by voice vote in the House, it had entered the Senate with bipartisan support.

But on Thursday that momentum stalled. Speaking on the floor, Sen. Bill Gannon, R-Sandown, said the practice should be continued, and offered one word why. Three times.

“Deterrence, deterrence, deterrence,” he said.

The advertisement of the checkpoints – and the threat of expensive court proceedings – keeps would-be intoxicated drivers off the road, Gannon said. And the ability to arrest those who choose to drive through the checkpoints anyway is a potential lifesaver, he added.

“It’s a very small, small 30 seconds of your life,” he said of the stops. “I don’t mind 30 seconds if it saves one life.”

Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, agreed, and argued that for police, the practice is more efficient than expanding road patrols and attempting to catch drunken drivers in the act – known as saturation. And the ability to concentrate the stops in high-traffic areas and at peak times in the evening helps both police and road users, she maintained.

“It might inconvenience you for a few moments, but isn’t that better than a random stop?” she said.

But opponents saw it differently. Many said the practice violates the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. By stopping every car at a checkpoint without suspicion, drivers’ rights are being violated, critics said.

“This is a very simple bill,” said Sen. Harold French, R-Franklin. “Either you believe needing probable cause is a good protection for the citizens of this state, or you don’t.”

The Supreme Court has upheld the use of sobriety checkpoints, exempting them from Fourth Amendment prohibitions in a 1990 case in the name of public safety. But opponents in the Senate said the stops contravene the spirit of the Constitution.

And Sen. Andy Sanborn took aim at the claims of effectiveness. A review by the Monitor last year 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.

“The proof’s not in the pudding in this case,” Sanborn said. A better solution, he argued, would be to devote resources toward expanding patrols and other methods.

Carson allowed that the arrest rate might be small but said any amount can help. “Less than 1 percent were caught,” she said. “But how many lives were saved from that less than 1 percent?”

And she offered words of blunt advice to those who find the practice a violation.

“If you don’t want to be stopped, don’t go through that area.”

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

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