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Value of DWI checkpoints questioned in Wakefield

by Thomas Beeler
Editor of The Granite State News
May 02, 2013
WAKEFIELD — During what was otherwise a short afternoon meeting of the Wakefield Board of Selectmen, two members of the audience questioned the value of sobriety checkpoints and whether they violated the Fourth Amendment.

At issue was a request from Wakefield Police Chief Ken Fifield for selectmen's approval of a $1,872 Highway Safety Grant to fund a sobriety checkpoint.

Resident Steve Brown said he thought the sobriety checkpoints violate the Fourth Amendment (prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures) and also questioned the value of a checkpoint since people are told in advance about it. In his opinion using roving patrols was a better use of the money. "Besides, it's federal money, and the fed doesn't have any."

Selectman Charlie Edwards, sitting in his role as vice chairman in the absence of Chairman Ken Paul, cited the statistics given in the request documents, which show 31 DWI arrests in 2010, 37 in 2011 and 28 in 2012. "I'm not a fan because of the Fourth Amendment," he said, "but I am in favor. Any arrest would be better than none and it could have saved someone's life…Any time you see a police officer and you're doing wrong, you think twice. If not, no problem. I think it's a good thing though I agree prior notice will reduce the effect."

Selectman Connie Twombley said, "If this grant is available, we should take advantage. If one life is saved, it is worth it."

Edwards added, "Police get closer to a driver at a checkpoint than they do on a patrol – that is where it works. You have to stop. The value is not just limited to DWI: there are other things."

Twombley cited catching people driving without a license. "Also, if a real terrorist came through, you'd have backup."

Resident Jerry O'Connor said there are strict guidelines in place for police, and the document the selectmen are being asked to sign is like a request for a warrant. O'Connor said he has videotaped police in action at checkpoints and they do the job well, handing out flyers and treating people with respect. "I'm inclined to believe it's working, since the numbers are going down." He added that money might not be available to enhance patrols, while the grant at issue is available now. Also the checkpoints go beyond stopping locals, catching people headed north who had a few drinks. "There are aspects to this you can't quantify," O'Connor concluded.

Ed Comeau of Brookfield, who was taping the meeting for www.governmentoversite.com, repeated Brown's point that the federal government is giving out money it does not have. He asked if the paperwork selectmen had included long-term numbers.

Edwards said the document specifies what police ask at stops and what they will be looking for. "They have rules and regulations."

Comeau pressed further: "Have any alternatives been offered? How can you sign the document without knowing all the facts?" he asked.

Edwards responded that the sobriety checks have been going on for years.

Comeau said "Just because you do it every year doesn't mean it's right. Do you know everything they are looking for? Also, where does it stop?"

Twombley said the document includes a list of what things the police are looking for. "Besides DWI they are looking for open containers, outstanding warrants, stolen cars."

Comeau acknowledged that checkpoints are done better in New Hampshire but stated, "Once you break an amendment, more gets added. It could be illegal search and seizure."

Edwards and Twombley voted 2-0 to approve the sobriety checkpoint grant.

In the second public comment period this reporter noted that sobriety checkpoints were only part of a major effort to get drunken drivers off the road and reduce traffic deaths, and those efforts have made a major difference. (After peaking at 54,589 in 1972 traffic deaths in 2011 were 32,367, a drop of 22,222 deaths a year or 40.1 percent.)

North Wakefield bridge

At the last selectmen's meeting on April 10, Edwards had objected to a $10,000 higher quote for completing repairs on the North Wakefield Road bridge and asked that the contractor be asked if he were willing to do the job for $5,000 more instead.

Edwards was pleased to report that CLH & Sons was willing to meet the town halfway, reducing the sole bid received from $161,657.40 to $156,657.40, writing "You guys have been a good customer and we are willing to work with you on this."

Other business

Edwards noted in his liaison report on the Highway Department that Road Agent Fred Clough has sent out supply town sand for bids but prefers to haul the sand using town trucks as fill-in work. Edwards said he wants to see a breakdown of cost, including labor costs if the town hauls the sand.

The Highway Department is out grading Oak Hill and Marsh roads, Edwards reported, and is also washing trucks, sweeping sidewalks and clearing ditches.

School Board member Brown asked where the town stood in regard to sharing a mechanic to service school buses as well as town vehicles. Since School Board member Judy Nason stepped down and Selectman Peter Kasprzyk was not re-elected little has been done on the project, though the Joint Maintenance Committee still exists. Both Edwards and Twombley agreed that selectmen should meet with the Joint Committee, though Edwards said he is still reluctant to proceed with any major maintenance because school buses are involved and the safety of children is at stake.

Brown emphasized that he was asking as an individual and not as a school board member.

Twombley reported that Michelle MacDonald is stepping down as Land Use clerk. Nothing was said about it at the last Planning Board meeting, but Twombley felt a letter of thanks should be sent to her. Edwards agreed.

Secretary Toni Bodah, sitting in for Town Administrator Teresa Williams, reported a sinkhole had opened up in the back parking lot and had been repaired.

The Fire Department will be flushing hydrants the week of April 29. This will clear the way for the flow test needed for the Town Hall sprinkler system installation.

Selectmen approved the purchase order for a new police cruiser. The cost will be $23,563.88 after trade-in.

The next meeting of the Wakefield Board of Selectmen will be on Wednesday, May 8, at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall meeting room.

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