, Derry, New Hampshire

September 5, 2013

N.H. Supreme Court rules in traffic stop cases

About the Law
Andrew Myers

---- — 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.

The law provides a criminal defendant a constitutional right not to be tried if he is legally incompetent.

Prosecutors bear a burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that a defendant is competent to stand trial.

A two-part test requires that a defendant have (1) a sufficient present ability to consult with and assist his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding; and (2) a factual as well as rational understanding of the proceedings against him.

The defendant claimed that amnesia prevented him from effectively raising defenses.

A forensic examiner from the N.H. Department of Corrections interviewed the defendant, finding no impairment in functioning or cognitive problems, and stating that the defendant had a very good understanding of the proceedings against him.

In State v. Decato, decided on Aug. 28, 2013, the N.H. Supreme Court held that the defendant understood the proceedings involved in the trial and the alcohol induced amnesia at the time of the alleged crime did not render him incompetent to stand trial.