Police to continue sobriety checkpoints despite lack of arrests

  • Lt. Greg Ferry interviews a motorist during a sobriety checkpoint in Bow.

Monitor staff
Friday, June 30, 2017

A police checkpoint to stop drunk drivers last Saturday night in Chichester netted zero arrests, but that hasn’t slowed down plans for future operations.

State police, citing “increasing incidents of drinking and driving,” are conducting another sobriety checkpoint in Portsmouth this weekend.

However, DWI arrests at police checkpoints have decreased by more than half since 2011 – down from 50 in 2011 to 21 arrests in 2016, according to state data.

Courts allow police to stop motorists without probable cause because judges determined the public safety interest in curbing drunken driving outweighed the intrusion on law-abiding drivers.

Roadblocks set to detect crime in general would violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

“For checkpoints to be constitutional under the New Hampshire Constitution, based on the case law the Supreme Court based their ruling on, they have to show checkpoints are an efficient tool to accomplish the purpose of getting drunk drivers off the road,” said Buzz Scherr, a law professor at the University of New Hampshire and president of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union.

Statistics show police typically stop 150 cars at checkpoints in order to make one DWI arrest. With so few arrests, lawyers are questioning if the constitutional intrusion is worth it.

Mark Sisti of Sisti Law Offices in Chichester, not far from where the checkpoint was held in town, said the amount of arrests means the issue of checkpoints should be revisited in a court of law.

“You’re probably better off having troopers on the roads and patrolling,” he said. “I can’t imagine a court would continue to authorize these random stops when they’re not doing anything. It’s a waste of time and money for the Department of Safety.”

The Portsmouth checkpoint will be partially paid for through federal highway safety funds, the state police said.

In requesting a court order for the Chichester checkpoint, state police Staff Sgt. Charles Johnston noted that the number of fatal car crashes statewide – and the proportion related to alcohol consumption – have “remained relatively constant each year” despite efforts to educate drivers and prosecute offenders. Johnston said sobriety checkpoints are a tool to help curb that dangerous behavior.

From 2003 to 2010, about 35 percent of all fatal crashes were alcohol-related, according to Johnston’s affidavit. From 2011 on, that number has increased to nearly 57 percent, showing that the majority of fatal crashes in New Hampshire now involve alcohol.

To combat that trend, Johnston wrote that the state police conducted 15 sobriety checkpoints last year, stopping 2,574 vehicles and arresting 21 people for driving while intoxicated, which is less than 1 percent of all drivers stopped.

Sobriety checkpoints not catching drunk drivers is nothing new: More than 85,000 people have passed through a sobriety checkpoint in New Hampshire since 2006; in that timeframe, the share of operators accused of drunken driving hasn’t exceeded 1 percent of the total traffic stops. In 2010, when state police checked 14,226 vehicles – more than any other year – 52 people were accused of driving while intoxicated, or 0.37 percent.

Less than half of the arrests made at checkpoints last year were DWI-related, according to a review of police reports. Of the 61 people arrested, 29 of them were charged with driving while intoxicated. In 2015, 90 people were arrested at sobriety checkpoints, 44 of whom were charged with driving while intoxicated.

Police ask the media not to report on the exact time or location of checkpoints.

But Scherr noted police are required to announce the checkpoint seven days prior to its use and that information is available in the court notice.

“They try to get cute with it by announcing the location will be in the Concord area or Portsmouth area,” he said. “But I think it’s completely appropriate to give notice. Any efforts to discourage that, you start to run into constitutionality issues.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)