Criminal
No. 2016-0363
Nov. 1, 2018

Natalie Laflamme
Associate at Sulloway & Hollis in Concord practicing civil litigation
Copyright 2017 Robert C Strong II

Reversed and remanded.

  • Whether a defendant was “stopped in transit” such that the police did not need a warrant to search her vehicle.

The State appealed an order granting the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence seized from her automobile. In September 2015, an officer observed a car parked at a closed gas station.  Upon approaching the car, he saw the defendant sleeping in the driver’s seat. He shined a light and knocked to wake up the defendant. When doing so, he saw a filled syringe, which he believed contained narcotics. He asked the defendant to exit the car and she agreed. He asked what was in the syringe, and the defendant answered that it contained “meth.” Later tests showed that the syringe contained methamphetamine and the defendant was charged with possession of a controlled drug.

The defendant moved to suppress all evidence resulting from the search of her vehicle pursuant to the State and Federal Constitutions. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, reasoning that because there was no recognized automobile exception to the warrant requirement under the State Constitution, the plain view doctrine did not authorize the warrantless search.

The Court stayed the State’s appeal pending the outcome of State v. Cora, 170 N.H. 186. The State argued that, under Cora, the officer did not need a warrant to seize the syringe from the defendant’s car because he had lawfully detained the defendant and had probable cause to believe that the plainly visible syringe contained narcotics.

The defendant acknowledged that whether the plain view exception justified an officer’s physical intrusion into a vehicle was rendered moot by Cora. The defendant argued, however, that the automobile exception recognized in Cora was limited to vehicles that are stopped in transit, and did not apply in her case as she was parked and asleep.

The Court first explained its decision in Cora. There, it determined that there is some reasonable expectation of privacy in certain parts of the interior of an automobile that are otherwise in public view and recognized a limited automobile exception to the warrant requirement. The Court held that police do not need a warrant to enter an automobile when: (1) the vehicle has been stopped in transit pursuant to a lawful stop; and (2) the police have probable cause to believe that a plainly visible item in the vehicle is contraband.

The Court held that it did not need to decide the limitations of the first Cora prong because, in this case, the defendant’s car was stopped in transit. The Court distinguished the case from its earlier decision in Camargo, 126 N.H. 756, upon which the defendant relied. In Camargo, the police seized a vehicle from a parking lot behind the defendant’s apartment. There, the Court concluded that the seizure did not meet the exigency exception because the automobile was parked and was not mobile. Camargo did not, however, establish as a matter of law that parked cars can never be “in transit.” Unlike the case before the court, the vehicle in Camargo, was unoccupied and parked where the defendant lived. Because the defendant in this case was in the driver’s seat and parked temporarily at a public place, the Court concluded that the vehicle was stopped in transit.  It reversed the trial court’s decision to grant the motion to suppress evidence and remanded the case.

 

Gordon J. MacDonald, attorney general (Sean R. Locke, assistant attorney general), for the State. Christine C. List, assistant appellate defender, for the defendant.