Supreme Court At-a-Glance Contributor Ryan M. Borden, Practicing at Ford, McDonald, McPartlin & Borden in Portsmouth, NH with a focus on bankruptcy representation of trustees, creditors and debtors, corporate law and commercial litigation.

No. 2020-0322

January 28, 2022

Affirmed

 

  • Whether the trial court erred in setting aside defendant’s falsifying physical evidence conviction by holding that he did not violate RSA 641:6, I when he held paper in front of a surveillance camera at the house of corrections in order to prevent the camera from recording an assault.

 

Defendant was an inmate at the Sullivan County House of Corrections.  In August 2019, another inmate was assaulted in a room monitored by surveillance cameras.  The camera footage was stored digitally and inmates had no access to the servers holding the footage.  The camera footage showed defendant and several other inmates entering the room and that defendant approached one of the cameras and held paper in front of the lens, obstructing the camera’s view.  When the defendant removed the paper, the victim was injured.

Defendant was charged with one count of falsifying physical evidence and one count of conspiracy to commit assault.  At trial, the State introduced the recording from the day of the assault.  The State argued that, with respect to the falsifying physical evidence charge, the defendant altered the recording by obstructing the lens.  The State did not introduce any evidence that defendant edited, deleted, or otherwise altered the recording that was saved to the server.  After the State rested, defendant moved to dismiss both charges.  The trial court denied the motions and defendant was convicted on both charges.

Defendant moved to set aside the jury’s verdicts.  Defendant argued, in relevant part, that RSA 641:6, I did not apply to his conduct because the statute was limited to the physical manipulation of physical existing things, and that the recording accurately recorded what it recorded and was still intact at trial.  The Court granted the motion with respect to the falsification of physical evidence charge, finding that the “thing” defined by statute was the physical recording held on the server.  With no evidence that defendant altered the recording, the trial court found that the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction under RSA 641:6, I.  The trial court denied the State’s motion for reconsideration.  The State appealed.

In reviewing RSA 641:6, I, the Court disagreed with the State’s interpretation of “thing.”  Relying on dictionary definitions and prior case law, the Court concluded that the phrase “any thing” as used in the statute “is limited to physical evidence that is capable of either assisting officials in an investigation or being used as evidence at a later proceeding, and must have some tangible quality; mere abstractions, such as thoughts, concepts, or ideas, are insufficient.”  The Court held that the camera’s field of view or feed from that view was not the relevant thing, but rather a mere “abstraction,” reflecting the house of corrections’ intention to record digital images from a certain angle or of a certain event.  Because such abstractions are not “things” as defined in the statute, defendant’s obstruction of the camera’s view did not violate RSA 641:6, I.  The relevant “thing” was the recording on the server, and there was no evidence that defendant altered, destroyed, concealed, or removed the footage.

The Court rejected the State’s argument that defendant altered the footage before it made it to the server, finding that the “thing” contemplated by the statute must exist before it can be altered.  Placing paper in front of the camera lens did not alter a “thing” (the digital recording) before the “thing” was created.

 

Office of the Attorney General (Zachary L. Higham, assistant attorney general, on the brief and orally) for the State.  Stephanie Hausman, deputy chief appellate defender, Concord (on the brief and orally) for the defendant.