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  • Staff photo by GRANT MORRIS


    A speed limit sign is seen near the Sagamore Bridge in Hudson.
  • Staff photo by GRANT MORRIS


    A speed limit sign is seen near the Sagamore Bridge in Hudson.
  • Staff photo by GRANT MORRIS


    A speed limit sign is seen near the Sagamore Bridge in Hudson.
Sunday, February 26, 2012

Proposed bills would expand NH freedoms – but at a cost

Whether police will soon have more power to arrest you without a warrant or if speeding will be legal unless you cause damage depends on the fate of a number of bills in the hands of the state Legislature.

Many of the bills submitted by Republican representatives were aimed at expanding individual freedoms, including some that would have clamped down on police officers’ ability to make warrantless arrests or to run sobriety checkpoints. Others would have made it virtually impossible to prosecute “victimless crimes” such as drug offenses or stood to eliminate prohibitions on using firearms in compact areas.

State Rep. George Lambert, R-Litchfield, is behind a number of the bills. He said bills such as his – banning sobriety checkpoints and decriminalizing speeding unless a driver causes personal injury or property damage – have always been submitted by legislators. The difference, he said, is that more people interested in strict adherence to the Constitution are winning elections, and they’re writing better bills.

“There are people who have been elected that have said, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Lambert said. “There are more people working on them and more people showing up. People are getting fed up.”

One of the most sweeping bills Lambert sponsored this session, HB 1531, would have established an affirmative defense for so-called victimless crimes.

Affirmative defenses, such as self-defense or insanity, essentially mean a defendant can acknowledge the state’s charges but argue they were justified because of some other factor.

Under Lambert’s bill, people who are accused of crimes that don’t have a direct victim – such as drug possession, prostitution, driving without a license or dozens of other infractions – would have been able to argue that since no particular individual was harmed, there was no crime.

“It’s ‘Show me the victim,’ ” Lambert said. “I have a right to a defense and a right to challenge the witnesses against me, and if there are no victims, there is no crime. The state itself can’t be the victim.”

Hillsborough County Attorney Dennis Hogan said the bill would have made it impossible to prosecute many crimes, including DWI, drug cases and habitual offender offenses.

“I don’t know if that’s the intention, to legalize drugs and no longer have standards of safety for driving, but that would be the end result,” Hogan said. “I think the Legislature needs to look at what the results would be and whether they really want to do that.”

Hogan likely has nothing to worry about. The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted that the bill is “inexpedient to legislate.” The full House will vote on it March 7, according to the House website.

Several police chiefs spoke out against several of the bills such as the ones Lambert has introduced.

“My short reply to that is that the bill is absolutely ridiculous,” Nashua Police Chief John Seusing said of HB 1696, which would legalize speeding except if it causes an accident. “I don’t see the logic in that whatsoever. Frankly, I don’t think that bill deserves much of a comment to say it’s ridiculous.”

Local police said they disagreed with several other bills, as well, including HB 1184, which would have required police to have more than video evidence to arrest someone without a warrant; HB 1527, which would exempt growing marijuana from the manufacturing drugs statutes; and HB 1452, which would have banned sobriety checkpoints.

“Overall, it’s not a big interference with the majority of people,” Hudson Police Chief Jason Lavoie said of sobriety checkpoints. “The responses we normally get are people thanking us.”

Lambert removed that bill from the House’s consent calendar after the committee voted it inexpedient to legislate Feb. 2.

Merrimack Police Chief Mark Doyle sided with Seusing on the bill that would decriminalize speeding.

“Holding people responsible only after they cause injury or property damage is like closing the barn door after the horse has already gotten out,” he said. “The damage, literally, has already been done.”

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee endorsed a bill by Rep. Robert Willette, R-Milford, that would repeal laws banning firearms in the compact areas of cities and towns.

The bill will go before the House on March 7.

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Ross Terrio, R-Manchester, would have made it easier for prosecutors to get convictions in some trials.

One bill, sponsored by Rep. Dan McGuire, R-Suncook, would have forced police to rely on more than videotaped evidence to arrest someone without a warrant.

A committee passed that bill, but with an amendment that actually expands police powers. If passed, the bill would allow police to arrest accused shoplifters without a warrant if a merchant saw the shoplifting or recovered merchandise from the person.

The House passed the bill as amended, and it is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

One of two Democrats on the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, Rep. Phil Ginsburg, of Durham, said he appreciates the point behind many of the bills the committee has reviewed this session, but said some go too far.

“And they ignore 230 years of Constitutional law, case law,” he said. “I think in general, many of these bills have in common is that they tend to overreach.”

Ginsburg said 230 years of interpretation and case law is important because it offers a balance between “public needs and individual freedom.”

“Many of these try to throw out those laws and throw out that balance,” he said. “Many of them go too far and too fast.”

Even if some of the bills have only a limited chance of passing through the committee or eventually being passed by the House, they still serve a valuable purpose, Ginsburg said.

“I’m often sympathetic to the underlying intentions of many of these bills concerned with freedom of the individual citizen and freedom from abuse of power,” he said. “It’s good always to be reminded of our basic principles and think them through again.”

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Cote on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).