By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Property rights advocates and police clashed over a bill Tuesday that would limit drug forfeiture laws while gun rights advocates and those concerned with public safety went toe-to-toe on extending justifiable lethal force from the home to a vehicle.
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard House Bill 331 which would prohibit any state or local law enforcement agency from transferring to the federal government any property seized in drug trafficking unless it exceeded $100,000 in value.
There were 10 people who signed up in support of the bill and 214 opposed.
Another bill, House Bill 197, would permit the use of deadly force in circumstances where a felony-level offense is committed against another person in a vehicle. It was supported by 11 and opposed by 155.
The latter bill would be an extension of the 2011 New Hampshire Stand Your Ground legislation which allows individuals to use deadly force in their home to defend themselves.
Lois Cote of Manchester, a volunteer for Mom’s Demand Action, spoke in opposition.
As a retired child and family mental health counselor, Cote said she is paying particular attention to issues related to increased suicides from the pandemic and the bill could lead to more public shootings. It could also add to the fear of being killed or hit by a stray bullet.
She called the bill “an outrage.”
Joe Hannon of Lee, vice president for Gun Owners of NH, said this is a very simple change to current state law, extending the deadly use of force in the home to people’s vehicles.
If you are unable to remove yourself or retreat from the car that is the same as your home, he argued. “This is a defense bill, pure and simple,” Hannon said.
He called it common-sense legislation.
Dena Romero of Hanover disagreed.
She had a few questions for consideration for the Senate committee and one was, is it necessary?
“Is it so dangerous in New Hampshire that we need to carry firearms for our safety? Do we need to rely on vigilante justice?”
Cindy White of Hopkinton, a former state prosecutor, said the bill, if passed could be very dangerous for the state and embolden reckless behavior in public.
“It’s an open invitation to vigilantism,” she said.
While the deadly force laws such as stand your ground or shoot first are vague and unevenly applied, they are focused on self-defense at the home. This would allow that doctrine to be extended to public locations where vehicles are involved, rather than be limited to homes.
“It’s like the wild west or something,” White said.
Republican state Rep. Judy Aron said she believes strongly that people have a right to defend themselves and their loved ones.
She recalled the case of Ward Bird of Moultonborough who brandished a gun at a trespasser and went to jail and was later released by the then-governor after he repeatedly refused to plea bargain.
“Do people have a right to protect themselves or not,” she asked.
Tracy Hahn-Burkett of Bow, a member of the Kent Street Coalition, focused on gun violence prevention. She said the bill is an invitation to escalate road rage incidents to a deadly situation.
She discussed a May 2020 incident in which a man was teaching his son to drive and was beaten with a baseball bat in Manchester.
What if he had a gun, instead of a bat, she asked.
Hahn-Burkett said analysis of road rage incidents nationally that led to 218 murders and numerous injuries showed many were related to frivolous issues including a driver not using a turn signal.
Zandra Rice-Hawkins, director of Gun Sense NH, focused on the words, “likely to use force” in the bill, which she said encourages white vigilantism.
She said it would expand justifiable deadly force in the state.
Rice-Hawkins said the bill would be giving people who have a perceived threat justification for shooting first and asking questions later.
“Those are not the types of policies we should be passing through the New Hampshire legislature,” she said. Instead, new legislation should be focused on making New Hampshire safer.
The other bill the Judiciary Committee heard lengthy testimony on related to drug forfeiture laws.
House Bill 331 was roundly opposed by the law enforcement community, but largely supported by property rights advocates.
It would mean states or local law enforcement agencies could not offer forfeiture assets seized to the federal government except when over $100,000 in value.
Law enforcement officials said the bill would impact the state’s ability to fight drug trafficking, much of which is coming in from out of state, and noted the state is still struggling with significant problems with opioid addiction, particularly near the Massachusetts border.
Rep. Aron, co-sponsor of the bill, said she believes there should be some limits on what can and cannot be seized. She said of special concern are those in the lower-income brackets who have a harder time recovering their assets if improperly taken by the federal government.
She thanked the officers for fighting drug crime and running the programs, but said she was concerned about “the poor guy whose $5,000 car is seized by the feds…and can never get his car back because it is just too expensive,” to fight the federal government.
But law enforcement officers from Nashua, Manchester, the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Department, and Bedford police all said that does not happen in New Hampshire.
The bill, they argued, would impact not only the ability of their efforts to fight drug trafficking but would also impact charitable donations made through those ill-gotten gains which help children recover from the damage caused by drug traffickers.
Chief John Bryfonski, formerly a DEA officer, said the notion that property is being seized from people who are not being criminally prosecuted is patently false.
These are not the drug users, he said, but those who are responsible for the drug overdose deaths that have ravaged the state.
“There is due process,” he argued. “This bill defunds policing, make no mistake about it.”
He said there are records that can be tracked and such seizures are accountable.
“We are not taking property away from some innocent owner who lent his car for the day,” he said.
Nashua Police Chief Michael Carignan said if the law passes he would not be able to fund his drug unit.
Manchester Police Lt. John Cunningham, assigned to the special enforcement unit on drugs, said the bill would have a negative and lasting impact on the state and its ability to fight drug trafficking.
“You should expect an increase in crime,” he said. And the impact would be felt by local taxpayers.
Nashua Police Det. Lt. Josh Albert asked why the threshold of $100,000 was in the bill.
Joy Barrett, chief executive officer for the Granite State Children’s Alliance, opposed the bill.
She said Nashua police provide the Children’s Advocacy Center funding to help the children and their caregivers recover from the trauma they have experienced related to drug trafficking and substance misuse.
Maj. Christopher Bashaw of the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Department, said: “This bill would absolutely devastate our ability to combat” the illegal drug trade in the state.
But Lee McGrath, senior counsel for the Institute for Justice, supported the bill calling it modest, incremental, and building upon reforms.
Ross Connolly, representing Americans for Prosperity, also supported the bill. He noted it would close a federal loophole and protect property rights.
Dan McGuire of Epsom, formerly a state representative when the state started to improve the asset forfeiture laws, said claims from law enforcement that this bill would cut their funding significantly is false.
Much of the assets, he said, disappear into the federal government.
Correction: A previous version incorrectly said Ward Bird shot at a trespasser. It should have said Ward Bird brandished a gun at a trespasser.