CONCORD, NH – The New Hampshire House of Representatives’ Transportation Committee met on Tuesday. Here is a recap of the bills they heard.
HB 374 would prohibit the use of driver’s licenses in civil law investigations.
Maggie Fogarty of the American Friends Service Committee and Manchester Police Commissioner Eva Castillo argued that while the act of entering the United States without permission is a criminal offense, the majority of immigration law violations address those who have overstayed their visa, which is a civil offense.
Castillo noted that she was not speaking on behalf of the Police Commission, also noting that she is a civil rights activist.
They both said that many immigrants who have faced difficulties in becoming citizens or addressing their resident alien status fear interactions with police and government officials, but also need to drive to live in New Hampshire given the Granite State’s limited transportation network.
That combination leads those immigrants to often drive without licenses, leading to added difficulty for local law enforcement and other drivers who might interact with the immigrants on the road.
They also told the committee that immigrants living in New Hampshire have a significant benefit on local communities and fears over voting violations were unfounded since there are thousands of individuals with driver’s licenses in New Hampshire who are not eligible to vote and local election officials are trained to address situations related to those individuals.
Neal Kurk, a former Republican state representative from Weare, spoke in opposition to the bill. He also made a point to state that he was speaking on his own behalf. Kurk felt that the bill would encourage people to violate criminal law related to entering the United States illegally, especially dangerous individuals.
He also expressed concern that law enforcement officials would seek other forms of information during certain investigations where they may not have otherwise done.
Introduced by prime sponsor George Sykes (D-Lebanon), this bill stemmed from an individual he met in Haiti after he traveled there for earthquake relief efforts.
In 2015, the individual in Haiti was kidnapped by gangs in order to be ransomed, but he managed to escape. However, he and his family needed to escape the country, fearing reprisals from the gang. While the man now lives in Lebanon and runs a non-profit agency, he has still not received an asylum hearing. He did receive a driver’s license a year after arriving in the U.S., but went without one up to that point even though he was required to get one 60 days after establishing residence in the state.
Sykes said that this bill helps people in his friend’s position during that gap where he is required to get a license, but still has to wait to get a temporary license. He added that driving is necessary for those living in the Upper Valley given the limited public transportation options.
Committee Chair Thomas Walsh (R-Hooksett) asked what happens when the individual with the license is granted (or denied) asylum. Sykes responded that the license is temporary and the procedure would follow that of what’s done for visa recipients.
Several members of the committee also asked why the time frame of the temporary license was only 180 days, which would not completely fill the gap. Sykes said that the language was recommended by the New Hampshire Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and he was open to amendments.
In an attempt to address racial inequity found in police motor vehicle stops, this bill would create race and ethnicity data on driver’s licenses for the purpose of data collection.
If the bill is passed, New Hampshire drivers would be able to opt into the program and then a number or letter would be placed on their license indicating their race and/or ethnicity.
New Hampshire ACLU Smart Justice Campaign Manager Joseph Lascaze said that in 2021, he was followed for a mile by an officer who stopped him just before he drove out of the officer’s jurisdiction. It was clear that he had committed no violations, but he later learned through a public records request that the officer identified him as Caucasian even though he is African-American.
Lascaze said that this bill would help provide tangible evidence of whether the incident he faced was a statistical anomaly or a trend. While New Hampshire State Police request this data from local police departments and local departments accredited by CALEA generally do provide the data, many departments across the state are inconsistent in providing this information.
Greater Manchester NAACP President James McKim echoed Lascaze’s sentiments after serving on a study committee formed after a previous attempt at passing this bill.
McKim stated that the transparency created by this bill will help engender trust between African-Americans and police, stating a recent survey reporting that 87 percent of African-Americans believe that law enforcement officers are biased against African-Americans and 61 percent of Caucasian-Americans agree that law enforcement officers are biased against African-Americans.
Hollis Police Department Chief Joseph Hobecki also supported the bill, noting that it was a recommendation of the LEACT report. However, he did note that there may be a financial impact to smaller police departments to keep up with statistical reporting requirements and the data would only be valuable if the data is collected in an organized, standardized and systemized matter like in Vermont.
However, it was unclear what the cost might be, with Hobecki adding that it could vary from town to town.
Hobecki’s support for the bill also stemmed from the hope that it would help build better connections with the community and that it allowed police departments to collect this data without putting officers in an unprofessional position where they are asking someone what their race is.
Former Dover Police Department Chief Charlie Reynolds echoed Hobecki’s statement that a clear process is needed and responded to a question from Committee Vice Chair Ted Gorski (R-Bedford) saying that action related to racial bias could be done on a department-wide or individual officer basis depending on the situation and municipality.
John Marsaco of the New Hampshire Department of Motor Vehicles did not voice an opinion on the bill, but said it could be implemented if it was just a number or a letter with current size restraints on driver’s licenses.
This bill would prohibit the suspension of someone’s driver’s license due to non-payment of fines or restitution.
Laura Telerski (D-Nashua) is the prime sponsor of this bill and presented it to the committee, following testimony on a similar bill she presented last week that would decriminalize non-habitually driving without a license.
This marks the third time this bill has gone through the legislature, with a comparable bill dying on the table in 2020 due to COVID-related scheduling difficulties and partially passing with extensive amendments in 2021.
Telerski said that license suspension for lack of payments on fines disproportionately impacts poorer individuals, who then lack the means to pay back the fines to get their licenses back. Meanwhile, more affluent drivers in similar situations just pay the fine and don’t change their behavior.
“Dealing with the courts, police and (Department of Motor Vehicles) should not be different for the poor and the rich,” she said.
In response to a question from John Sellers (R-Bristol), Telerski said that this bill does not apply to habitual offenders or in motor vehicle violations connected with criminal offenses. She also said that individuals owing fines would need to show the courts that they cannot afford to pay the fines and potentially face a bench warrant for their arrest if they ignore a summons from the courts requesting proof showing that they cannot afford to pay the fines.
The bill also received support from several other individuals, including Tony Lekas (R-Hudson) and Castillo, testifying on her fourth straight bill in the committee.
Castillo expanded on Telerski’s comments with individuals she has met in Manchester.
“These people will have to choose between paying their fine or feeding their children,” she said.
Dan Hynes (R-Bedford) also spoke in favor of the bill, saying that many people were unaware that their license may be suspended due to letters providing this information not being delivered properly.
Richard Head, Government Relations Coordinator with the New Hampshire Judicial Branch, took no position on the bill, but told the committee that the bill could limit the ability of judges to address specific situations related to non-payment of driver’s license-related fines.
He also said that in some cases, judges allow partial payment of fines as long as payment plans can be made to pay off the fines eventually.
Hynes is the prime sponsor of this bill, which seeks to remove the requirement for placing license plates on the front of passenger vehicles.
Currently, license plates are required by states on both the front and back of passenger vehicles with the exceptions of Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Hynes told the board that some cars, such as Teslas, do not have hookups for front license plates and the value of some other vehicles can be decreased with front license plate additions.
He was open to an amendment that would charge drivers $8 for a rear plate rather than $4 a plate for a pair of plates, saying that it would save the state money printing fewer plates.
In response to a question from Alvin See (R-Loudon), Hynes said that there would be a higher need for drivers to keep their back plate clean and transparent, although they could still add a less readable front plate if they chose.
Michael Granger (R-Milton) also supported the bill, but primarily due to concerns over the Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles currently being able to provide special rules in regard to how many plates are on a vehicle, an authority he believes an un-elected official should not have.
New Hampshire Department of Transportation Administrator of Turnpikes John Cochrane opposed the bill, saying it would significantly impact revenue at toll booths. He said last year, there was $120 million in revenue from EZ Pass, with $13 million coming from people who do not actually have an EZ Pass transponder, but paid later. The identities of those drivers were discovered by cameras looking at license plates, with Cochrane saying 53 percent of those drivers were identified by the front plate.
Without a front plate and an obscured back plate, those drivers may be able to drive through the EZ Pass lane without purchasing a transponder or paying later.
Charlie St. Clair (D-Laconia) asked why the state isn’t losing money on cars from those states with one plate, and Cochrane said that not many of those drivers come to New Hampshire since the closest one-plate state is Pennsylvania.
Sykes asked for the list of states with one plate and Cochrane did not know the list off the top of his head, but said he heard that Pennsylvania is trying to switch to two plates because they are losing money at toll booths.
Lt. Jay O’Leary of the New Hampshire State Police also opposed the bill, stating having two plates on a vehicle assists police during “be on the lookout” (bolo) situations and Massachusetts went to two plates in 1987 largely for its impact on helping law enforcement.
On this bill, sole sponsor J.R. Hoell (R-New Boston) said that he could take Hynes testimony and just say “ditto.”
This bill allows vehicles to go with just a rear plate, but does not mandate it. Unlike Hynes’ bill, this bill also would allow commercial motor vehicles and trailers to go with just a rear plate.
He said that for vanity plate owners, this is already a defacto law for temporary periods given the time needed to create vanity plates. He also said that reducing the amount of identifying information a driver is required to put on their vehicle helps with privacy concerns.
“It’s past time for the rear plate to be the only one,” he said.
Hynes and others supported this bill with comparable reasoning given by Hoell relating to how a front plate is superfluous while Cochrane and others testified against the bill, repeating testimony from the previous bill in stating this would cost the state money on turnpikes and hinder law enforcement.