, Derry, New Hampshire


September 5, 2013

N.H. Supreme Court rules in traffic stop cases

You’re driving down the street. Flashing blue lights come on behind you. You pull over.

The officer asks about your inspection sticker. You have one of those clear stickers given when the car passes the safety inspection, but fails the emissions test. That’s OK; it gives you 60 days to fix the problem. But wait, while questioning you the officer smells alcohol, runs tests, and you end up charged and later convicted of DWI.

Can all evidence of alcohol be tossed out because the stop was improper?

This is one of two issues addressed in recent New Hampshire Supreme Court cases.

The police officer here mistakenly thought there was no inspection sticker at all. The drunken driver did not challenge the initial stop. Instead, the driver claimed that once the officer saw the transparent sticker, reasonable suspicion justifying the stop was over and subsequent observations including alcohol on the breath should be suppressed.

Bare essentials of a routine traffic stop, the court explained, consist of stopping the vehicle, explaining the reason for the stop, and asking for license and registration.

In State v. Dalton, decided on Aug. 21, the N.H. Supreme Court held that the officer’s conduct in requesting the defendant’s license, registration and inspection paperwork was routine, and that the subsequent observations of intoxication behind the wheel did not violate constitutional constraints.

In a second, more shocking case, a defendant appealed his conviction on charges including aggravated felonious sexual assault on grounds he was incompetent to stand trial.

Here, the defendant highlighted evidence that he had consumed 18 beers on the night in question and that he had no memory of events underlying the conviction.

With no memory of the period during which the charged offenses took place, the issue was whether the defendant could communicate facts to counsel relevant to possible defenses.

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