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Bar News - July 21, 2006


Supreme Court At-A-Glance


Cases for June 2006, compiled by Michael J. Listner

 

Administrative Law/Consumer Protection

 

Daimler Chrysler Corporation v. Darren Victoria, No. 2005-357

Appeal from Rockingham County Superior Court

Vacated in part; and remanded

 

  • Petitioner appeals decision by the trial court upholding the new motor vehicle arbitration board’s award to the defendant under RSA 357-D, the state’s motor vehicle “Lemon Law.”  At issue is whether the board exceeded its powers when it adopted the purchase price of the vehicle from the reinstallment contract; and that the board refused to consider evidence as to the actual purchase price of the vehicle.
  •  

Examining the statute in question, the Court noted that the statute states that a refund of the full purchase price tendered by a manufacturer will come from the price in the purchase contract.  The Court rejected the board’s assertion that the Court should have construed the “purchase contract” to mean the retail reinstallment contract, which is the board’s long standing interpretation.  The Court noted that had the Legislature intended “purchase contract” to mean reinstallment contract, it could have done so expressly in the statute.  Furthermore, the Court noted that nothing in the statute suggests that the statute was punitive in nature and that the purpose of the statute was to refund a consumer’s purchase price and not to have the benefit of a windfall nor does the statute issue any edict to refund an amount to the consumer to regain the original trade-in vehicle.

 

The Court rejected the petitioner’s argument that the board did not consider evidence presented as to the actual purchase price of the vehicle as the record showed that the board permitted the petitioner to introduce the evidence of the cash purchase price, although it is unclear whether the board considered this evidence.

 

Administrative Law/Employment Security

 

Appeal of First Student, Inc., No. 2005-384

Appeal from administrative hearing committee, New Hampshire Department of Employment Security

Reversed

 

  • Petitioner appealed ruling of AHC for the New Hampshire Department of Employment Security, which ordered Petitioner to pay unemployment compensation contribution payments that the DES calculated retroactively.
  •  

In deciding for the Petitioner, the Court found that the DES, under RSA 282-A, made an initial Determination of Liability in January 2001 and did not bring further action during the statutory limitation in RSA 282-A:145.  Therefore, the AHC was in error as a matter of law when it upheld a September 2003 determination, which required the Petitioner to pay the retroactive contribution payments.  Whereas the Court resolved this appeal by applying the statute, it did not address remaining arguments.

 

Constitutional Law

 

Boulders at Strafford, LLC v. Town of Strafford, No. 2005-14

Appeal from Strafford County Superior Court

Vacated and remanded

  • In this case, the Court examined the trial court’s standard of review when evaluating the constitutionality of a zoning ordinance under the State Constitution and in doing so articulated a new rule for rational basis review pertaining to the State Constitution.

 

The Court noted during its examination of the trial court’s proceedings that the rational basis, intermediate and strict scrutiny test overlap in that similar terms are used to describe these standards of review, namely the terms “reasonable”, “arbitrary”, and “unduly restrictive.” 

 

New Rule: The rational basis test as applied to the State Constitution requires that legislation be only rationally related to a legitimate government interest, and that the rational basis test as applied to the State Constitution will contain no inquiry into whether legislation unduly restricts individual rights, and that the least-restrictive means analysis is not part of the rational basis test.

 

Gayle B. D’Antoni v. Commissioner, New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, No. 2005-352

Appeal from Hillsborough-northern judicial district

Affirmed

 

  • Plaintiffs obtained marriage license from defendants and each paid the requisite $45.00 as established under RSA 457:29.  Plaintiffs asserted that $38.00 allocated to the DOVE program was in fact a tax and thus violated Article 5 and Article 12 of the State Constitution.  Plaintiffs appealed the granting of summary judgment to the defendant where the trial court ruled that the $38.00 was a fee and not a tax.

 

In hearing the appeal, the Court applied its general tax-versus-fee analysis using an affidavit submitted as evidence at the trial court.  The Court noted that in the context of issuing a business license, to be considered a fee; the amount paid must bear a relationship to and approximate the expense of issuing the license and of inspecting and regulating the business licensed.”

 

In determining that the $38.00 was a fee and not a tax as contended by the plaintiffs, the Court noted that the $38.00 was not grossly disproportionate to the costs of issuing a marriage license.  The Court agreed with the trial court that since the charge is in dollars, it is fungible and therefore capable of being used for other programs, including the DOVE fund.  The fact that the legislature directed the funds to be paid to the DOVE fund did not make them any less fungible than if they had been directed to the general fund. 

 

Finally, the Court recognized that while the charge in question resembles a charge determined to be a tax by an Illinois court, the Court noted that the charge in that case was in addition to the fees necessary to pay that state’s expenses, and the court in that case was required to determine whether the charge was related to the issuance of marriage licenses.  The Court took notice of the fact that the charge at question in this case was not in addition to the charge, and according to the evidence presented, the $38.00 is less than the State’s costs.  Therefore, the Court agreed with the trial court that the $38.00 was a fee and not a tax because according to the evidence presented, the charge bore a reasonable relationship to, and approximated the expenses of, issuing the plaintiffs’ marriage licenses.

 

State of New Hampshire v. James Murray, No. 2005-304

Appeal from Rockingham County Superior Court

Affirmed

 

  • Defendant appeals his conviction for being a habitual offender.  The trial court declared a mistrial because of violation of the discovery rules by the prosecutor and the defendant subsequently moved for dismissal of all charges asserting that the prosecution intentionally provoked the mistrial and therefore, a retrial would violate the constitutional ban against double jeopardy.  The trial court disagreed and the defendant was retried and convicted.

 

In affirming the trial court’s decision, the Court noted that double jeopardy can attach by reason of judicial or prosecutorial overreaching that is intended to provoke the defendant into requesting a mistrial or to prejudice the likelihood of an acquittal.  The Court determined that while misconduct had occurred on the prosecutor’s part in this case, it did not meet the standard of intentional misconduct that was required to invoke double jeopardy under both the State and federal Constitutions.

 

Criminal Law

 

Stephen Debonis v. Warden, New Hampshire State Prison

Appeal from Merrimack County Superior Court

Affirmed

 

  • The petitioner appeals the decision of the trial court denying his writ for habeas corpus.  Petitioner argues that the parole board did not comply with the mandatory statutory time limit of RSA 651-A:17, and that the parole board violated his constitutional rights which grants a parolee the right to a revocation hearing within forty-five days of his arrest. 

 

The Court refused the petitioner’s assertion that statutory time limit should be read to recur each time a scheduled revocation hearing is rescheduled noting that the statute only grants the parolee the right to a revocation hearing within forty-five days of arrest.  The Court further noted that the petitioner waived his right to a revocation hearing within the statutory time period and thus had no right to have a hearing within any time period.

 

The Court recognized that even though the petitioner did not have a right to a revocation hearing under the statutory time limit, he was still allowed due process protections against unreasonable delay between his arrest and a parole revocation hearing.  The Court, from the record, found that the trial court determined that the petitioner’s constitutional rights were not violated because the petitioner failed to prove or otherwise plead that any delay between his arrest and the revocation hearing prejudiced his case.

 

The State of New Hampshire v. Daniel Fichera, No. 2005-122

Appeal from Stafford County Superior Court

Reversed and remanded

 

  • Defendant indicted for attempted murder appeals the trial court’s ruling granting the State’s pretrial motion to strike the defendant’s insanity plea under RSA 628:2, III and the trial court’s ruling preventing the defendant from cross-examining the victim on issues concerning her mental condition and beliefs. 

 

The question of whether it was proper for the trial court to strike the defendant’s insanity defense prior to the trial was an issue of first impression for the Court.  The Court determined that the trial court exercised an unsustainable exercise of discretion by striking the defendant’s insanity defense in a pre-trial motion.  The Court rejected the State’s argument, which relied on a standard jury instruction that identifies specific factors that a jury may consider when deciding insanity.  The Court reasoned that this standard is not applicable when determining the adequacy of notice.  The Court further disagreed with the dissent arguing that the defendant gave notice of his intent to raise the insanity defense and the grounds by showing that he had two diagnoses for mental illness and was receiving treatment.

 

The Court ruled against the defendant on the second issue for appeal holding that while a defendant is entitled to cross-examine a witness to impeach the witness’ credibility, the defendant must have a basis; however, the basis for impeachment cannot be mere suggestion or innuendo.  In this case, the defendant’s basis for impeachment was alleged diagnoses of bipolar disorder, a prescription for medication at a point in the past, and documentation that the witness had delusional beliefs.  The Court was not persuaded by the defendant’s argument that the witnesses mental illness goes straight to the witness’s credibility nor did the defendant offer any evidence that the witness’ mental illness caused her to hallucinate or otherwise affect her perception of events that the witness testified to.

 

The State of New Hampshire v. Scott Abram, No. 2004-502

Appeal from Merrimack County Superior Court

Affirmed in part; reversed in part and remanded

 

  • Defendant appeals his conviction by jury for twenty-one counts of aggravated sexual assault, four counts of endangering the welfare of a child, and one count of indecent exposure.  On appeal, the defendant challenged the trial court’s denial of his motion to sever the charges for trial and the trial court’s granting of the State’s motion in limine excluding extrinsic evidence concerning the victim’s allegations.

 

On the issue of the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to sever the charged offenses, the Court held that the trial court did not exercise unsustainable exercise of discretion when it denied the defendant’s motion to sever the pending child for two of the three victims.  The Court agreed with the State that certain charges were related in that they were part of a common plan and constituted a single criminal event and therefore were properly joined.  The Court disagreed, however, that the three charges of aggravated felonious sexual assault of one of the victims were properly joined as these charges couldn’t have been part of the defendant’s common plan.

 

The Court then examined the defendant’s contention that his rights under Article 15 of the New Hampshire Constitution and the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution were violated when the trial court granted the motion in limine.  The Court rejected the defendant’s contention under the State Constitution because the trial court conveyed in its decision why the defendant’s contention could not support that the victims’ allegations were “clearly and convincingly untrue.”

 

When addressing the federal Constitutional claims by the defendant, the Court again rejected the defendant’s assertions noting that the admission of evidence sought by the defendant would have produced significant confusion of the issues and likely resulted in a “trial within a trial” and thus likely would have caused significant delay in the proceedings.

 

State of New Hampshire v. Keith Lacasse, No. 2005-189

Appeal from Hillsborough-southern district Superior Court

Affirmed

 

  • Defendant appeals his conviction under RSA 649-B:4, I, citing in particular that the trial court erred when it denied his motion to dismiss due to insufficient evidence to prove that the defendant believed the person he solicited was under sixteen years of age.

 

In affirming the trial court’s decision, the Court noted that the defendant did not meet the burden of proving that the evidence, viewed in its entirety and with all reasonable inferences drawn in the State’s favor, was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty.  Specifically, the defendant failed to show that there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant believed that a minor the defendant approached in an Internet chat room was under the age of sixteen. 

 

The Court, after reviewing the evidence presented at trial in the totality, concluded that a jury could have come to the conclusion that notwithstanding the defendant’s initial exchange online, the defendant’s subsequent behavior could have led a rational jury to the conclusion that the defendant was indeed guilty of the crime.

 

Evidence

 

Linda Desclos v. Southern New Hampshire Medical Center, No. 2005-596

Appeal from Hillsborough southern judicial district, February 8, 2006

Vacated and remanded

 

  • Plaintiff brings interlocutory appeal during medical malpractice suit to an order granting the defendants access to plaintiff’s psychiatric and psychological records.  In making its order, the trial court reasoned that the records in question were relevant to the issue of damages.  Upon plaintiff’s motion to reconsider, the trial court further ruled that because of the nature of the plaintiff’s claim for damages, the plaintiff waived the psychotherapist-patient privilege.  The plaintiff on appeal argues that the privilege was not waived by making a claim for generic damages that normally arise from the type of medical malpractice alleged.  The defendants argue that the records are necessary to respond to the damages claim and that the plaintiff’s privacy rights were properly weighed against the need of the defendant for evidence for their defense.

 

The Court reviewed the trial court’s decision under the unsustainable exercise of discretion standard by which the Court would not disturb the trial court’s ruling absent a finding that the trial court’s ruling were unreasonable and thereby prejudiced the plaintiff’s case. 

 

The Court found that the trial court applied the wrong standard since relevance alone is not sufficient to allow the disclosure of privileged records.  Privileged information may only be disclosed by waiver or if the court orders a piercing of the privilege.

 

The Court reasoned that the psychotherapist-patient privilege, like the attorney-client privilege, can be waived if the privilege holder introduces the privileged material into the case in such a way that the resolution of the case depends on the privileged material.  The Court found that the claims for mental suffering were incident to the claims for physical injury and without further detail of the alleged mental suffering, the Court could not make a determination of whether or not the plaintiff waived the psychotherapist-patient privilege by injecting the issue of her mental condition into the action.

 

The Court further suggested that if on remand the trial court determines that the standards of a piercing of the privilege as outlined in State v. Elwell, 132 N.H. 599 are met by the defendants, that any information obtained from that piercing be reviewed in camera.

 

The State of New Hampshire v. Christopher Beltran, No. 2004-695

Appeal from Hillsborough-northern Superior Court

Affirmed

 

  • Defendant appealed his conviction on two counts of second-degree murder.  On appeal, the defendant contends that: 1) the trial court was in error by admitting evidence that he physically abused his former girlfriend; 2) that the trial court was in error when it refused him to admit a police report as extrinsic evidence to impeach the testimony of his former girlfriend; and 3) the trial court erred when it allowed the State to impeach its own witness.

 

The Court rejected the defendant’s contention that the issue of his girlfriend’s actions relating to the murder was not sufficient to allow the trial court to allow evidence of his mistreatment of his girlfriend and that the prejudicial effect of the evidence outweighed its probative value.  The Court reasoned that the evidence of the abuse was relevant to refute the defendant’s claim that his former girlfriend was lying and to explain her actions on the night of the murders, as well as explain why she initially lied to the police.

 

The Court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court’s analysis of the third prong of Rule 404(a) concerning prior bad acts was in error.  The defendant argued that even thought the evidence of the abuse of his former girlfriend may have been relevant it was still excessively prejudicial.  The Court held that the trial court’s ruling was not untenable or unreasonable to the prejudice of the defendant’s case.

 

The Court upheld the trial court’s refusal to allow the police report as extrinsic evidence to impeach his former girlfriend because the police report was insufficiently reliable under any exception of the hearsay rule to prove that the defendant’s former girlfriend made inconsistent statements and that it also contained multiple levels of hearsay.

 

Finally, the Court rejected the defendant’s contention that the State could not impeach its own witness when the main purpose for doing such was to place inadmissible hearsay before the jury.  The Court reasoned that Rule 607 allows the credibility of a witness to be attacked, and Rule 613(b) allows the use of a prior inconsistent statement to do so.  Moreover, the Court found that the testimony of the witness was relevant to the State’s case, and when the trial court allowed the State to impeach its witness, it applied a limiting instruction to minimize the danger of unfair prejudice.

 

Municipal Law

 

William H. Sullivan v. Town of Hampton Board of Selectman, No. 2005-464

Appeal from Rockingham County Superior Court

Affirmed

 

  • In this appeal, the Court examined two issues of first impression: 1) whether RSA 32:10 gives town selectmen “unfettered” discretionary authority to change line item appropriations within the “default budget;” and 2) whether the selectmen in this instance did not follow statutory procedures because the altered budget comprised a “revised operating budget” according to the meaning of RSA 40:13, X.

 

Before the Court examined the issues at hand, it addressed the question of whether the issues were moot considering that the Town of Hampton was already into the 2006 budgetary year.  The Court determined that the issues were moot; however, because there was a pressing public interest in having the issues decided upon, the Court made an exception to the mootness doctrine.

 

On the merits, the Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the town selectmen did not have “unfettered” discretionary authority to change line item appropriation within the town budget and noted that the Court has held that town voters cannot restrict the selectmen’s transfer authority with conditions such as “good cause” and approval by the budget committee.

 

The Court also held that the mere transfer of appropriations among budget line items from funds already appropriated does not trigger the procedural requirements of RSA 40:13.  The Court noted that had the selectmen increased the bottom line of the budget, a revised budget might have resulted and thus required the procedural steps of RSA 40:13. 

 

 

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