Whether sobriety checkpoints are a bane to motorists or a boon to public safety, government red tape sometimes trumps all other factors in the decision of whether to use them.
“We rarely do them here,” said Salem Police Chief Paul Donovan, president of the New Hampshire Police Chiefs Association. “The effort that is required versus the results you see — we feel we can achieve the same results through the rolling patrol methods. The process to get approval for checkpoints is cumbersome.”
Peter Thomson is coordinator of the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency, which doles out the federal funds used to properly publicize and staff sobriety checkpoints throughout the state.
“The funds are there to hold them more frequently,” he said last week. “It's more what's involved in setting one of them up. It takes a lot of time.
“You have to make sure it is properly advertised, that signage is in the proper places. There's a lot to it.”
According to statistics Thomson provided, the number of sobriety checkpoints held in New Hampshire has dropped in recent years after a steady increase. In 2005, 13 checkpoints were held. The number increased to 32 in 2006, 49 in 2007 and 67 in 2009. Frequency dropped off to 44 in 2010 and 46 in 2011. Thomson expects there will be 47 checkpoints in 2012, with about $147,368 in federal funds spent on staffing.
Checkpoints can be staffed with a minimum of five officers or more than a dozen. Each officer is paid overtime at time and a half.
On May 26, the Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend, state police stopped 348 vehicles on Route 3 in Franklin and made five arrests, including one for DWI. The other charges included operating after suspension, breach of bail and possession of a controlled drug.
During a four-hour checkpoint on Route 3 in Holderness the night of June 8, officers checked 115 vehicles. There were no DWI arrests but two for possession of a controlled drug.
This past Friday night, local and state police held separate checkpoints in Portsmouth. Of the more than 300 drivers screened, six were charged with driving under the influence.
Some departments prefer using DWI surveillance patrols rather than checkpoints.
“We've never operated a sobriety checkpoint in Derry,” said police Capt. Vernon Thomas. “We prefer to go out and look for impaired drivers than set up a roadblock. We don't have to give any advance notice of something like that, like you do with a checkpoint. You do wonder if people hear about a checkpoint and just go a different way.”
State law requires authorities to obtain a superior court order “authorizing the sobriety checkpoint after determining that the sobriety checkpoint is warranted and the proposed method of stopping vehicles satisfies constitutional guarantees.”
Departments have to show probable cause that a particular area has high instances of accidents or drunken driving arrests. Officers also have to establish an impartial pattern, such as pulling aside one car out of every five, for a checkpoint.
“The process can be cumbersome, but it's necessary,” said Allenstown Police Chief Shaun Mulholland, who instructs police departments throughout the state on how to properly conduct and advertise checkpoints. “It's part of a system of checks and balances to make sure the procedures at the checkpoints are followed properly. There is a lot to the process....”
A night in Manchester
Manchester held a checkpoint late Friday into Saturday morning on the Notre Dame Bridge on Bridge Street. In announcing the checkpoint on its website, the department said “the sobriety checkpoint is the most effective method of detecting and apprehending the impaired operator.”
While he didn't have the results of that checkpoint, the officer in charge on Saturday, Sgt. Richard Brennan, questioned the effectiveness of checkpoints generally and said officers on patrol might be more likely to catch drunks.
“I think the department is put at a disadvantage because you have to announce it,” Brennan said. In bars, “the word spreads like wildfire that the cops are on Bridge Street. You're kind of giving away the game before you start.”
While 10 states prohibit the use of sobriety checkpoints, others allow them with even less advance notice to motorists than is required in New Hampshire.
“I worked in Connecticut before coming here, and the rules for checkpoints there were a lot less strict,” said Donovan. “Departments could just pull up and set one up where they wanted without much notice.”
In the New Hampshire House this session, lawmakers rejected a bill that would have outlawed checkpoints.
Speaking in support of the bill, Claire Ebel, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, told lawmakers:
“As a mom, I think the hottest place in hell is reserved for those that drive drunk and jeopardize the safety of others on the road. I don't have sympathy for anyone who gets behind the wheel and drives drunk, but I also don't want the civil liberties of everyone else infringed upon when they are stopped in one of these checkpoints.”
Donovan maintains New Hampshire has the right policy.
“I think the way we do it here acts as more of a deterrent. I think the advance notice works. If someone is going to go out partying or to have a few drinks with dinner, and knowing that there will be a sobriety checkpoint causes them to stop and think twice about doing it, then that's a deterrent.”
Mulholland added: “Checkpoints are important, and patrols are important, but they are just part — and not even the biggest piece — of combating drunk drivers. The biggest piece is education. We aren't going to catch every drunk driver. People's behaviors need to change.”