Late into the evening of August 31, the New Hampshire state police established a suspicionless checkpoint on Route 12 in Walpole. The location seemed a strange choice, as the area is notably rural and does not see any heavy traffic. Presumably, this was also the first suspicionless checkpoint established in Cheshire county this year. A detail of about ten state police units and just under that amount of cruisers situated themselves in front of a large Citgo station and waited for drivers to ambush. For most, the checkpoint meant shuffling through one’s wallet to find their papers, drowning in a sea of backlighting for about two minutes, occasionally field-testing for sobriety, then being released upon their way.
While it is the position of the state that these sorts of rights-infringing checkpoints promote safety by increasing detection of impaired and possibly reckless drivers, individuals are detained at these checkpoints indiscriminately and during my time at the checkpoint itself, I observed only one car that was permitted to roll through with no detention. Since detentions were not based on suspicion of a driving offense, they essentially violate the fourth amendment of the US constitution as well as liberties enumerated in the New Hampshire constitution, but the framework of a supposedly free people is permitted to be violated so long as a person in a black robe authorizes the indiscriminate stops. Per NH law, the suspicionless checkpoint was announced in advance with a release published in the Keene Sentinel. Knowing that drivers needed additional notice of the checkpoint, activists set up signs warning of the checkpoint ahead and indicating where the final turnoff was to avoid the detention from either approach.
At no time over the course of the evening did I observe any driving offenses or conduct that could be considered a physical threat to anyone’s person. The primary threat to safety was the threat of being thrown in a cage, which hung over all present near the police checkpoint, whether stopped in a vehicle or exercising the right to film from the right of way. When I first approached the checkpoint from the North side on foot, I kept about one hundred feet away from the nearest cruiser and did not walk alongside the checkpoint. After several minutes in this position, I was approached by the commanding Lieutenant Jerome Maslan and asked not to enter the roadway. For my protection, in addition to rolling video, I was wearing a reflective AKPF safety vest and a headlamp which was pointed at my feet, to ensure that there could be no allegation that I was using my light to blind or distract others. The Lieutenant was cordial during our first encounters on the side of the road, but he would grow increasingly agitated as more activists and pedestrians arrived. For seemingly no reason at all, Jerome decided to close one side of the road’s right of way to pedestrian traffic, claiming the shoulder was private property and that we would have to cross the street in order to walk fifty feet up the road. This was a ludicrous and presumably illegal order, and it is unclear whether it was even an order at all. Throughout the night, troopers would often ask individuals to perform an action, and often there was active compliance. When Ian Freeman decided to exit a vehicle’s passenger side while I was driving and detained, Jerome asked him several times to re-enter the vehicle. Though his repeated statement, “I’m asking you to get in the car” sounded more like a request than an order, the implication was that this question was legal threat and not complying with the question could result in an arrest. This was confirmed when Jerome stated, “This is your last chance to get back into the car. If you don’t get back into the car, then this officer will arrest you for disorderly conduct.” Ian complied under duress, and likely would have complied earlier if Jerome had been clear in his diction. A high ranking law enforcement officer should know the difference between asking a question and giving a legal order.
The reason for which Ian was asked to re-enter the vehicle was the dubiously vague appeal to safety. But not just anyone’s safety — “I’m asking you to get in the car for your safety.” Jerome was accurate that it was a threat to Ian’s safety to be outside of the vehicle. But the source of the threat to Ian’s safety was Jerome and his subordinates, who had the power to cage him for simply standing alongside a vehicle that he was attempting to travel freely in. There was a major threat to safety posed on Saturday evening and into Sunday morning, and it was the threat that peaceful people who may have violated any number of victimless statutes would be kidnapped and caged. Whether it be outdated paperwork, one’s open container, prohibited herbs, or being too slow to produce permits, the primary safety threat is the checkpoint itself, and the mentality that everyone passing through is a suspect until proven innocent.
My friend Eric made the mistake of driving through the checkpoint alone and without a camera rolling. When he asked two or three questions in response to being asked if he had a driver’s license, he was promptly arrested for Failure to Obey. While you are in a car in New Hampshire, police have additional privileged authority over you and the ability to place obligations on yourself. Failure to comply with requests for paperwork is a charge specific to driving which does not threaten travellers utilizing only bipedal locomotion. It’s worth contrasting Eric’s arrest with my own drive-through of the checkpoint, featured in the opening of the video linked above. I produced neither a driver’s license nor vehicle registration, though I did state that my license was valid and identified myself verbally. Kudos to trooper Charles Newton for choosing not to cite myself, as he could have required I jump through an unnecessary hoop to prove I was licensed and the vehicle registered. After releasing drivers, police distributed a one-page survey about the checkpoint which encourages feedback from those detained.
Towards the end of the night, the resident of a home close to the road came out to speak to the Lieutenant. It was between one and two AM. Her home was between three to four times closer to the road than the home across the street, where we were told that walking on the shoulder was potentially trespassing. Instead, we had been diverted to the shoulder abutting her property, which had been illuminated with police lights since ten o’clock. James was there to hear her conversation with Jerome, where she asked if the lights pointed at her house could be moved just several feet, as they had been shining into her bedroom window since the beginning of the whole ordeal. Jerome’s response was negative, the lights could not be moved several feet, and she returned to her home dissatisfied.
Want more from the scene? Check out the raw footage from Free Concord’s camera coverage of the evening organized into a playlist on Fr33manTVraw.
This article was originally published to FreeConcord.org.