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Police address concerns about sobriety checkpoints

August 11, 2011
OSSIPEE — "If you live in a free society there will be some limitations on some freedoms," Wakefield Police Chief Ken Fifield recently told the county's delegation during a hearing on the constitutionality of sobriety checkpoints.

While there may be limitations on some freedoms, added Fifield, the real question is, are they reasonable? In his opinion, the sobriety checkpoints are reasonable and highly-regulated by the court system.

At the invitation of the sheriff, Fifield was joined by Allenstown Police Chief Shaun Mulholland and Moultonborough Police Chief Thomas Dawson.

The county delegation is made up of the county's 14 state representatives. Chair of the delegation, Betsey Patten (R-Moultonborough) agreed to hear the presentation so police officials could respond to concerns that arose from at least one delegate and a couple of members of the public after the commissioners agreed to sign off on a $600 grant for the checkpoints.

Patten let the discussion about whether these checkpoints violate the people's rights under the Fourth Amendment continue but did add her view that the issue is "more of a presidential or political issue" and "outside the purview of the delegation."

One delegate, Norman Tregenza was the only delegate to speak against the process of police stopping random cars on the highway to screen them for possible drinking and driving violations. Tregenza said, in his opinion, the checkpoints are a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which elected officials and police are sworn to uphold. He read the Amendment for the record: "The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause supported by oath or affirmation and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized."

Fifield repeated several times in his presentation that the issue has been vetted in court and police are not conducting "searches." "There is a misnomer we are doing a search. We are not doing searches we are doing vehicle stops," said Fifield.

Earlier this summer, the county commissioners accepted a $600 federal highway safety grant that will fund the August sobriety checkpoint in Wakefield. When these checkpoints are held on Route 16, Ossipee Police, Carroll County Sheriff's deputies and NH State Police troopers also assist. Fifield explained how a checkpoint works. Each stop takes three minutes or less. As vehicles approach the staging area, traffic is slowed to 15 miles per hour. There are three slots on each side of the highway. Motorists are directed to pull into an open slot as slots open up. An officer will quickly interview the driver. If it appears the driver is under the influence of alcohol, he will be asked to step out of the vehicle to submit to a field sobriety test. At both ends of the checkpoint area, there are "chase" cars. These police are directed to follow any vehicles that turn around to avoid the checkpoint but are not allowed to pull the cars over unless the officer witnesses a traffic violation.

According to Mullholland, New Hampshire has the strictest regulations for conducting sobriety checkpoints and the procedures have been developed by police officers. Before conducting the checkpoint, permission must be granted from the superior court and it must be advertised so the public is aware one will be happening though not the exact date, time and location.

"In the state of Vermont, two officers can get together and say 'let's run a checkpoint right now' any time any place. Massachusetts is the same way. So is Florida and a number of other states," said Mullholland. "We don't allow that. You have to justify the reason you are doing the checkpoint, why the other methods are ineffective, and you have to have a standard by which you do that."

"We are here to protect the constitution and protect people's rights. If you believe in Tenth you believe the state has right to make its own laws. If you believe in the people's house, the legislature, you believe people have the right to make laws that are good for the state. In this case the people spoke and made a law.

"We think we need checkpoints," Fifield added. He also said surveys are given out and 98 percent of people who were stopped and respond to the survey say the experience was positive, the stop was not intrusive and the stop was for a good reason.

According to Wakefield Lt. Mark O'Brien, because of the increased interest in this year's sobriety checkpoint set to be held later this month, the department will be holding a press conference prior to the checkpoint night to answer questions and address any concerns.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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