It is now mid-February and New Hampshire's new DWI sentencing laws, which became effective on January 1, 2013, are in full swing. I have updated my website to summarize all of these changes - you can read about the changes in the law here. I have had only a couple of clients convicted of DWI in this time period so I have not gotten enough feedback to report on how these changes have been implemented. However, I do have some potential good news to (cautiously) report. The NH legislature has begun hearings on a new Bill which, if it becomes law, will allow some form of a "work permit" law for those convicted of DWI-first offense with no aggravating factors.
New Hampshire is among the minority of States that do not have any form of "work permit" or "Cinderella" license for people convicted of DWI-first offense. Just to look at the "M" States alone: Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri are examples of States that allow for a work permit under some circumstances, meaning that those convicted of DWI may get a special permit allowing them to drive to work even though they have not yet served out their full DWI license suspension.
This is bad policy, especially for New Hampshire, where most people live in rural settings and public transportation is practically non-existent. Many first-time offenders have no issues with alcohol or substance abuse - they simply had one drink too many while dining in a restaurant or out with friends in a nightclub. NH's DWI sentencing laws effectively strip these people of their jobs, their livelihood, their ability to support their families and pay the mortgage - by denying a work permit for the entire duration of the DWI suspension. For those who lose their jobs because of a single mistake, this is nothing less than cruel and unusual punishment. However, even for the hard-core alcoholics that make up a minority of this population, the lack of a work permit option constitutes bad policy because it undermines the chances for a successful rehabilitation. Indeed, in my experience, one of two things will happen. For some, the driver's license suspension with no work permit option will mean the loss of a job, loss of ability to support one's family, loss of the pride and structure that comes from going to work every day.
But for others, staying home all day, not supporting one's family and not being able to pay the rent or mortgage is simply not an option. These folks find they have no choice but to simply driving while under suspension in order to get to and from work. When they get caught, they get charged with driving under suspension, they become habitual offenders, and they go to prison. How does any of this advance the public policy goal, shared by law enforcement, crime victims and defense lawyers alike, of rehabilitating offenders so that they do not offend again?
For these reasons, I testified at a House Committee hearing this week in favor of the Bill to make some form of work permit available for first-time offenders only. I told the Committee that a work permit law will cause three big changes: 1) More people who are guilty, will plead guilty because they will be able to hold onto their jobs thanks to the work permit; 2) Those people will plead guilty much more quickly, because they want the benefit of the work permit as soon as possible, and 3) Less people will hire lawyers, if they think they can still keep their jobs despite a DWI conviction.
Because of #3, I acknowledged, a work permit law may not be the best thing for my bottom line. But, it is clearly the best thing for the people of New Hampshire.
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