Suppression/Armed Career Criminal Statute
August 8, 2019
Affirmed in part; reversed in part; and remanded
- Whether the trial court erred by granting the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence of a firearm and a motion to dismiss two indictments that alleged he violated the armed career criminal statute.
The police obtained a search warrant for the defendant’s residence in order to search for drugs. During the execution of the warrant, an officer began searching a closet in which he discovered a box. When the officer looked inside the box, he saw a tightly rolled shirt but could not identify what was inside of the shirt. The officer then removed the shirt from the box and unfurled it, and as he did a firearm fell out of the shirt and onto the floor.
Based on the discovery of the firearm, the State charged the defendant with violation of the armed career criminal statute, RSA 159:3-A (2014), which prohibits persons with certain types of felony convictions from owning deadly weapons. The State charged the defendant based on underlying felony convictions relating to three convictions for drug offenses that arose from a single criminal episode. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence of the firearm and the indictments pertaining to the armed career criminal statute. On appeal, the State argued that the firearm seizure satisfied the requirements of the plane view exception to the warrant requirement. The State also argued that the armed career criminal Statute does not require the defendant’s qualifying felony convictions to arise from at least three separate criminal episodes.
The Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s ruling on the suppression of the firearm and affirmed its ruling regarding the armed career criminal indictments. With regard to the suppression issue, the Supreme Court held that, generally speaking, the plain view exception permits law enforcement officers to seize clearly incriminating evidence or contraband without a warrant if such evidence is inadvertently discovered during lawful police activity. The Supreme Court held that it was reasonable to believe that the closet, the box, and the rolled-up shirt could conceal drugs such as heroin and therefore the officer did not violate the Constitution in arriving at the place from which he viewed the firearm. Similarly, the Court concluded that the officer had a lawful right to access the firearm because the police were lawfully searching the defendant’s residence for drugs pursuant to a warrant and the officer discovered the firearm while he was searching any place where drugs could reasonably have been found. Lastly, the Supreme Court held that the “immediately apparent” requirement only required whether the items incriminating nature was evident at the time of the seizure and that the seizure, for purposes of the plain view doctrine, was not until after the firearm fell out of the shirt and came into plain view.
With regard to the armed career criminal statute, the Court found the statute ambiguous, turned to its legislative history, and determined that the legislature’s purpose in enacting the statute was to target repeat offenders, not individuals who have acquired three or more convictions as a result of a single criminal episode.
Gordon J. McDonald, attorney general (Susan P. McGinnis, senior assistant attorney general, on the brief and orally), for the State. Thomas Barnard, senior assistant appellate defender, of Concord, on the brief and orally, for the defendant.