New state law means DWI offenders must be checked for substance use disorder
After Peter Heed, a former state attorney general and Cheshire County attorney, pleaded guilty last week to driving while intoxicated in Keene the night of Jan. 10, he was ordered to get screened for substance abuse and to follow any treatment plan that may be prescribed.
It isn't just the former prosecutor who has to do these things.
Under a state law that took effect Jan. 1, a person convicted of DWI for the first time will have to submit to a screening within 14 days by a state-approved Impaired Driver Care Management Program (IDCMP) to determine whether the driver has a "substance use disorder."
If that screening found a "likelihood" the person had such a disorder, a full evaluation would be required within 30 days of conviction. The person would have to follow any treatment plan prescribed and complete a state-approved impaired-driver education program.
All the requirements would have to be met before the driver's license could be returned. The earliest an offender could expect to get his or her license back would be 90 days.
Under the new system, the court will order a first-time offender's license revoked for at least nine months and as long as two years, but can suspend six months of that sentence if someone follows all the rules.
There are even stricter rules for multiple offenders, with longer jail sentences and license revocations imposed on those who don't follow treatment plans.
The new law is aimed at getting problem drinkers off the road and into treatment sooner.
Joseph Harding, director of the state Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services, said the new system takes a carrot-and-stick approach with first-time offenders. "You can get your license back much sooner if you do what you're supposed to do right away," he said. "And the stick is you don't get it back at all until you do it."
For multiple offenders, the threat of additional jail time is meant to encourage individuals to get into treatment, Harding said.
But one veteran defense attorney is concerned that New Hampshire does not have enough approved providers to handle these new requirements.
"The problem is that some of the people are not up and running yet," said Ray Raimo, a Manchester attorney specializing in DWI defense.
And if approved programs are not available in some areas, he said, "It seems that people will be losing their license for more than 90 days because the system can't accommodate them quickly enough."
Raimo also foresees similar potential problems with new provisions for multiple offenders that allow judges to impose suspended jail sentences on those who do not comply with treatment programs.
"It just seems that these people are either going to have to resign themselves to not getting their licenses back or you're going to end up with people driving without their licenses," he said.
Harding said his bureau had only six months after passage of the new law to get administrative rules approved and to line up providers.
To date, the state has certified only five IDCMP programs, with a sixth approval pending. The five agencies have offices in 12 communities, from Salem to Bethlehem, and Portsmouth to Keene.
"There's a lot of bumps in the road implementing any new system of this magnitude, and that should be expected, but I think things are progressing well," Harding said.
Harding said there are more than 50 treatment providers approved and others pending.
By the end of this month, he said, the programs for first-time and multiple offenders that used to be required will be phased out. And he said anyone convicted before Jan. 1 who has not yet attended such a program will come under the new requirements.
Raimo said his Manchester clients wouldn't have too much difficulty fulfilling the new requirements. But he said in more rural areas, multiple offenders could be hard-pressed to get to their programs.
"If you don't live in Epping, Keene, Manchester, Dover or Berlin, you have grave logistical difficulties built into this system," he said. "Worse than you did before."
Judge Edwin Kelly, administrative judge for the Circuit Court, served on the study commission that spent years working on the DWI issue and proposed the changes to state law.
Kelly said he did have concerns about access to services. But he said as the demand for such programs increases as a result of the new law, "There's an expectation there will be treatment providers."
Kelly noted the law also calls for arraignments in DWI cases within 14 days of arrest. "I think that is a very, very positive move because we know that the sooner people come into court to face their charges, the sooner the case is going to resolve."
The theory, he said, "is the sooner you can get someone who has a problem into treatment, the more likely that treatment will be successful."
Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, sponsored the bill that became the new law. She, too, expects there will be more treatment providers as the new system gets going.
"For a long time, we'd been cutting more and more the resources available for providers, and providers were closing down," she said. "And now that there will be more demand, there will be more supply coming back, I'm pretty sure."
Almy noted that the law was written so that all expenses for the screenings and treatment programs would be paid for by the offenders themselves, with no cost to the state.
The initial intake and screening costs $75, plus a $70 "client fee" to the state to administer the program, according to DHHS. A full evaluation will cost $200, and the impaired-driver education program an offender has to attend will cost $300.
Harding said his bureau does have federal money available under an Access to Recovery grant that could be used to help those who cannot afford to pay.
As for access to services in remote areas, Almy said she's always favored creation of a "hardship" license that would allow DWI offenders who are in recovery to get to their jobs and treatment programs.
Such a proposal is pending before the Legislature this session.
Harding favors that option for those who are complying with their treatment plans. "I think it's always preferable to use an approach that has both positive incentives and negative consequences, as long as you're reasonably assured about the public safety issues," he said.
Raimo, too, is all for it.
"I think that would alleviate a lot of the problems, and I certainly think it could be managed in an appropriate fashion so we would not have people who are dangerous to the community out on the highways."
He noted Massachusetts has such a law, "and the sky has not fallen in.
Even Raimo acknowledges New Hampshire's new approach may work better than the old system once the access issues are resolved, especially for first-time offenders.
"It puts the evaluation process at the beginning of their involvement in the program as opposed to the end of it, as it used to be," he said. "From that perspective, I think it could be better."