A law taking effect Jan. 1, 2016 gives first-time DWI offenders the chance to apply for a limited driver's license.
But some say the new law doesn’t go far enough.
For years, New Hampshire had imposed a mandatory minimum 90-day license suspension for anyone convicted of drunk driving.
Now, first-time DWI offenders can, for a $50 fee, petition a judge for a restricted license that would allow them to drive only to work, school, doctor’s appointments, or to a rehabilitation program.
If approved by a judge, drivers would also have to pay for and install an ignition interlock device that tests their blood alcohol level before they can start the car.
“It’s pretty much a fail-safe system to make sure that somebody else isn’t starting the vehicle for them and to make sure most importantly that they aren’t driving drunk.”
Democratic State Representative Stephen Shurtleff of Penacook was the bill’s prime sponsor.
“It’s a way to keep drunk drivers off the road. It’s a way of enabling people to keep their jobs and not have to go on public assistance. And again, it’s something that the court must agree to and only applies to first -time offenders.”
Gov. Maggie Hassan signed the bill into law in 2014, but it is just now taking effect.
Most states, including all New England states, have programs to ensure some type of limited driving privileges for first-time offenders.
Ted Lothstein is a criminal defense attorney in Concord who specializes in drunk-driving cases.
“This law is long overdue. It’s going to help a lot of people. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough.”
One way Lothstein says the new law falls short is that it imposes a 45-day waiting period before drivers can apply for the restricted license.
“If they have financial resources, then they’re going to be able to get through the 45 days by paying other people to drive them or relying on family members. But for some people, that’s still too long.”
And he says one question that remains unanswered is whether the law is retroactive.
The bill’s sponsor Steve Shurtleff says no.
“To the best of my knowledge, it’s only those convicted after January first.”
But Lothstein says there’s nothing in the law preventing someone who’s serving their suspension now from a 2015 conviction from applying.
“If I’m wrong, then yes, that’s an area where the law doesn’t go far enough. There’s no reason to differentiate between people who are convicted on Jan. 2 and people who are convicted on Dec. 31. That doesn’t make any sense.”
The New Hampshire Association of the Chiefs of Police opposed the bill when it was being debated in 2014.
Now that it’s going into law, the association’s Executive Director Pat Sullivan says he remains concerned about it taking some teeth out of the state’s drunk-driving laws.
“With the penalties that we had prior, although they were substantial, we also saw a reduction in the number of DWI arrests.”
The bill did get support from Mothers Against Drunk Driving.