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Prohibiting sobriety checkpoints opposed

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 02. 2012 11:47PM

CONCORD - Law enforcement, the attorney general and the House leadership turned out Thursday to oppose a bill that would prohibit sobriety checkpoints.

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee held a public hearing on House Bill 1452 and is expected to recommend the House kill the bill.

A bill sponsor, Rep. Seth Cohn, R-Canterbury, and other supporters said people's due process rights are violated during checkpoints stops when people are arrested for other violations or their vehicles are searched.

Supporters also questioned if current practices follow the guidelines set out in past legislation after the state Supreme Court found there were constitutional issues with random, unannounced checkpoints.

Those opposing the bill said prohibiting the checkpoints would take a very important tool away from law enforcement in their fighting against impaired drivers.

Law enforcement officials credited the checkpoints for helping to reduce the fatalities on the state's roads last year to the lowest level in 51 years.

Peter Thomson, the coordinator of the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency, said sobriety checkpoints are among the tools law enforcement uses to drive down the number of fatalities. 'They are a really important tool in the fight to drive down alcohol related fatalities,' he said.

State Police Sgt. Matthew Shapiro said the checkpoints not only catch impaired drivers, but also act as a deterrent for those who don't want to take the chance they will be caught.

He said impaired drivers are responsible for 41 percent of the fatal crashes in the state over the last three years.

Bill supporters maintained they are not against taking drunk drivers off the road, but are concerned the current law giving the court oversight over the checkpoints is not being followed.

Cohn said courts should not be approving checkpoints if other methods, like roaming patrols, prove more effective. Yet he said the courts continue to approve the checkpoints. 'The courts have given in and said checkpoints are fine with us,' he said.

He said checkpoints between Dec. 20, 2011 and New Year's Day produced 26 arrests for impaired driving and 56 arrests for other violations. 'I thought it was a sobriety checkpoint? That gets to the heart of this,' he said.

It has fallen to the Legislature to say the checkpoints should not be used to search property without a warrant, he said. 'I'm asking the Legislature to take back the responsibility,' Cohn said.

Another bill sponsor, Rep. George Lambert, said if a driver is stopped at a checkpoint and found to have a suspended license, he should be let go because it is not impaired driving.

The stops are being made without probable cause, Lambert said, and that makes them in violation of a person's due process rights.

Rep. Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, and a town selectman, said he was representing the Republican House leadership in opposing the bill.

He reminded the committee that driving is a privilege in New Hampshire, not a right.

Jasper asked the committee to kill the bill, saying 'we don't need this bill out there. This is an issue that needs to be put to bed.'

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