With testimony about racial profiling in hand, lawmakers debate immigration checkpoints

House committee also takes up racial data collection, marijuana legalization

By: - October 22, 2021 6:00 am
A checkpoint on U.S. 1 in Florida

In 2017, the Trump administration’s Customs and Border Protection began the practice of setting up the checkpoints unannounced. (Joe Raedle | Getty Images)

When U.S. Customs and Border Protection set up a series of ad hoc weekend checkpoints on Interstate 93 to check the immigration status of drivers, the stops were more than an inconvenience to Sebastian Fuentes.

On three separate occasions, Fuentes, a Thornton resident who emigrated from Peru in the early 2000s, found himself stopped for significant periods of time at the highway checkpoint, which the border agents set up in Woodstock, the next town over. The detentions could last an hour, each time occurring on his way to work, he said. 

“I experienced firsthand the treatment and unprofessional conduct from our border patrol,” Fuentes told the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in February. “… For no valid reason, when I’m headed to work. My children are often scared for my safety because they don’t know what’s going to happen, even though I’m a U.S. citizen.”

Fuentes’s testimony came into play again on Wednesday, when the committee voted to recommend passing a bill that would require police departments to give public notice that immigration checkpoints were being deployed. 

Members of the committee voted, 11-9, to recommend the bill, House Bill 579, be passed when it comes before the full House in January, in a decision that scrambled party lines.

In 2017, the Trump administration’s Customs and Border Protection began the practice of setting up the checkpoints unannounced – always on Interstate 93 just south of Lincoln – stopping vehicles to look for undocumented drivers. The practice drew controversy, and an ACLU lawsuit, as some pointed to the federal officials’ use of drug-sniffing dogs to make drug arrests of stopped motorists without first asking to search the cars.

For Fuentes, the frequency with which he was stopped felt to him like they were motivated by his appearance

“I don’t know if it’s the skin color. I don’t know if it’s my accent, which is pretty clear,” he said. “I think it’s something that needs to stop.”

Though the checkpoints have not been deployed during the Biden administration, Democrats and several Republicans argued the notice was important to allow people to avoid the checkpoints in case they are re-implemented.

The bill would require a state or local police department to provide notice to the public within 24 hours of being told by federal agents that a checkpoint was in progress “by using various media resources available” – including through their websites, social media, and press releases.

Speaking to fellow committee members, Rep. Latha Mangipudi, the first Indian American elected to the state Legislature and a resident for 30 years, recalled how she herself had been stopped at one of the checkpoints when she had visitors from out of state. The experience made her feel like she had been racially profiled, and drove her to consider carrying a citizenship card. 

“It blows my mind that in this century I have to be very cognizant of where I am and how I look,” the Nashua Democrat said. “Because I look the way I look, I need to carry a card to prove that I’m an American citizen?”

Having advanced notice would have allowed her to stay away from the checkpoints, she said.

“I would avoid it,” she said, when asked what she would do if she had prior warning. “I would avoid going at all.”

Opponents countered that requiring the notice could make it harder for the CBP to stage effective checkpoints. And some, like Rep. Terry Roy, suggested it could lead the agency to stage the checkpoints without local law enforcement participation. 

The vote was one of several taken Wednesday. The committee recommended killing a bill to require police to collect racial data when making motor vehicle stops, dimming the prospects of the effort after Senate Republicans had also voted against it.

And while members of the committee couldn’t quite agree on pathways to legalize marijuana or give incarcerated people opportunities to shorten their parole – two high interest areas this year – committee members indicated that compromises could be close. 

Over a four-hour executive session, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee took on a range of bills held over from the previous year’s session, recommending to kill some, pass others, and send another group to interim study.

The recommendations for the bills will be taken up by the full House in January. 

Here are some of the key votes:

HB 620: requiring racial data collection for police stops

In a 12-8 vote, the committee recommended killing HB 620, which would require law enforcement agencies to gather, analyze, and publicize data on the gender and race of the people they pull over in cars or search.

That proposal is one of a number endorsed by New Hampshire’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency, the 2020 group that met after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Gov. Chris Sununu, who convened that committee, endorsed all of its recommendations.

House Democrats on Wednesday argued that the bill was important because it would allow lawmakers and the public to see if police officers in the state were using racial profiling in their stops – whether intentionally or unconsciously – and allow police officers to see for themselves.

But Republicans said the bill did not lay out a clear process by which the race of a person stopped by police could be collected, and said the law could lead to officers making that determination themselves. Some opponents said they would support requiring race on driver’s licenses to allow officers to input the information on their own. Others complained about what they said would be cost downshifting from the state to local departments to comply with the bill.

The vote did not fall along party lines; two Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the bill, arguing it needed more clarity. 

HB 598: shortening the length of time to offer parole to the incarcerated

Members of the committee delayed a decision on HB 598, which would require that a person who is incarcerated be offered the chance for a parole hearing after completing 50 percent of their minimum sentence.

Advocates said the change would give inmates a second chance and an incentive for good behavior, and help reinforce goals of rehabilitation. 

The proposal was largely supported by Democrats, but some Republican representatives said they might support it if it excluded violent offenders. Committee Chairman Daryl Abbas said he could support a version of the bill that did that and also amended the measure to trigger a parole hearing at 50 percent of a person’s given sentence, not 50 percent of their minimum sentence.

Rep. Linda Harriott-Gathright, a Nashua Democrat who had chaired a subcommittee to work on the bill, agreed to consider changing some provisions. The committee will hold a full committee work session and hearing sometime in the coming weeks, Abbas said.

HB 237: legalizing, regulating, and taxing marijuana

The committee voted to recommend shelving a bill to legalize cannabis in the state: HB 237. That bill would create a system of taxation and regulation around the sales of cannabis, and limit home growth to three mature plants at any one time. 

That approach would include the creation of a commission to license and track cannabis establishments and would allow municipalities to decide whether to allow or ban cannabis stores. 

To Rep. Casey Conley, a Dover Democrat who is spearheading the bill, the legislation represents the culmination of years of efforts to advance marijuana legalization bills past a historically skeptical Senate and a governor who opposes them.

“I don’t know how many bites at the apple we’ve taken to get to a cannabis legalization bill,” he said. “… As yet this is the best bill that’s come before the House. It deserves better than interim study.”

But as they voted to send the bill to “interim study,” some Republicans said they disagree with the approach of regulating and taxing marjiuana sales. Abbas said that the state could take the business tax revenues generated by vendors but that taxing the individual sales could make it harder for stores to compete with the black market. 

Rep. Chris True, a Sandown Republican and staunch conservative, called it a line in the sand. “I don’t think government should be involved at all in the taxation of marijuana,” he said.

That position could shape how new efforts to legalize cannabis appear during next year’s legislative session. 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.

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