NH House Passes Restricted Driving License for First-Time DWI Offenders-House Bill 496

On Wednesday January 29, 2013, the New Hampshire House of Representatives passed House Bill 496 which would allow first-time DWI offenders to drive for limited purposes, so long as an ignition interlock device is installed in their vehicle to test their blood alcohol content.

The Bill’s sponsor, House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook, was named a “legislative champion” by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) for his work on the legislation.  The idea behind the Bill is to let those convicted of DWI keep their license so they can drive to work, to their required alcohol and drug treatment, and can continue to care for their family.

Currently, anyone convicted of aggravated DWI or a subsequent DWI offense, must install an ignition interlock device in their vehicle, after the period of license suspension has been served.  This also applies to anyone who is younger than 21.  Judges can order the interlock device to remain in the car for 12-24 months after suspension.

The ignition interlock device is designed to prevent the car from starting if the driver’s BAC level is greater than 0.02, the equivalent of one beer for an adult.  At present, a number of different vendors supply the device to NH with the average monthly cost of about $70.

State Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, said supporters of the Bill have worked for years on establishing a hardship license that would let first-time offenders use their car for mandatory trips but still assure public safety. “This is a balance between having the highway safe and providing an opportunity to not do further damage to a family unit when one loses their license,” Cushing said.

Proponents of the Bill argue that this limited driving privilege would only be authorized if the defendant proved that they needed to drive to work, go to drug or alcohol treatment, or to obtain medical treatment for themselves or someone in their immediate family. And, anyone requesting the limited license would lose their driving privileges for the first 14 days of their suspension or revocation period.

The NH Department of Safety’s position is that there must be a “significant and meaningful period of hard license revocation before any type of limited license is issued,” assistant commissioner Earl Sweeney said. “We believe this hard revocation period must be no less than 60 days and preferably 90 days or it will not serve as a meaningful deterrent”.

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee had recommended the measure by a 16-1 vote. Cushing stressed that the program is voluntary, and any first-time offender could merely serve out the suspension or revocation and receive their license back without an ignition interlock device. “The Committee believes that this limited privilege will allow first-time offenders to maintain their employment while still abiding by the strict requirements of the law,” Cushing said.

At present, a number of other states including Maine and Massachusetts have similar laws with limited-privilege licenses.

Michael Sielicki, president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police opposes the Bill. “New Hampshire has some of the strongest DWI laws. To water them down doesn’t seem practical to us.” “The time your license is suspended is a deterrent,” Sielicki said.

Time will tell if this Bill will generate enough traction to pass in the Senate.

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