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State v. Caswell

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

November 21, 2012

State of New Hampshire
v.
Robert Caswell

ORDER

The defendant, Robert Caswell, appeals his convictions for receiving stolen property, driving after having been certified as a habitual offender, and disobeying a police officer. He argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress. We affirm.

When reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress, we accept the trial court's findings of fact unless they lack support in the record or are clearly erroneous. State v. Boutin, 161 N.H. 139, 142 (2010). We review the trial court's legal conclusions de novo. Id.

We briefly set forth the facts in this case. Chichester Police Officer Orlando was parked on the westbound side of Route 4, in a "turn around" for State plows to exit off, turn around and go back onto Route 393. He was operating stationary radar, approximately one quarter of a mile from a sobriety checkpoint being run by several local law enforcement agencies. Orlando was not associated with the sobriety checkpoint. At approximately 1:40 a.m., Orlando observed the defendant drive by, headed toward the sobriety checkpoint, pull into the breakdown lane and stop approximately 100 feet ahead of him on the eastbound side. Orlando drove slowly by the vehicle to determine whether the defendant needed assistance. As he passed, the vehicle's lights were suddenly turned off. He activated his blue lights and pulled in behind the vehicle.

The defendant was subsequently charged with several offenses. He filed a motion to suppress, arguing that Orlando lacked reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop. The trial court denied his motion, finding that Orlando had acted appropriately under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement, see, e.g., Boutin, 161 N.H. at 142-43. At the time the trial court issued its order, Boutin had not been decided. The defendant filed a motion to reconsider, arguing that the facts in his case were similar to those in Boutin and, therefore, the stop was not justified under the community caretaking exception. The trial court found that the defendant's argument had "merit in light of Boutin, " but also found that the stop was justified because the defendant had violated two motor vehicle statutes. Because we conclude that the record before us supports the conclusion that the stop was justified under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement, we need not consider the trial court's subsequent conclusion that the stop was justified because the defendant had violated motor vehicle statutes.

As the State concedes, it did not argue at the suppression hearing that the defendant was not seized. Accordingly, we need only determine on appeal whether the seizure was constitutional. See, e.g., id. at 142.

To be valid under the community caretaking exception, the seizure must be "totally separate from the detection, investigation or acquisition of evidence relating to a criminal matter." State v. Boyle, 148 N.H. 306, 308 (2002). To justify the seizure, the officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the intrusion. Id. We consider these facts under an objective standard; that is, whether the facts available to the officer at the moment of seizure warrant a person of reasonable caution to believe that the action taken was appropriate. Id. "Whether the seizure of a person by a police officer acting in his or her noninvestigatory capacity is reasonable . . . requires a reviewing court to balance the governmental interest in the police officer's exercise of his community caretaking function and the individual's interest in being free from arbitrary government interference." United States v. King, 990 F.2d 1552, 1560 (10th Cir. 1993) (quotation omitted).

The defendant argues that "[b]ased on Boutin, the trial court erred in ruling that the seizure of [his] car under the community caretaking exception was justified." Specifically, he contends that where he "was parked on the paved portion of the breakdown lane, and where the State offered no evidence that Orlando observed any signs of an accident, that the car was disabled, or that its passengers were in distress, the trial court erred in finding the stop justified under the community caretaking exception." We disagree. Although in Boutin, we observed that "Boutin's car was parked legally in a pull-off area and the officer did not observe any obvious signs of an accident, that the car was disabled, or that the passengers were in any type of distress, " Boutin, 161 N.H. at 143, these were not the only factors that supported a conclusion that no apparent risk was presented to either the driver or the public at large. Indeed, the record in Boutin indicated that the pull-off area was at least eight feet from the edge of the roadway and that the vehicle's headlights were on. Id. at 141.

Such a conclusion is not supported in this case where the defendant stopped in a breakdown lane on Route 4, a road that the trial court found was "dimly lit" and "moderately travelled, " on that portion of the road just off the exit ramp from Route 393, and where the defendant turned off his vehicle's lights. Officer Orlando testified that the only reason that he checked on the vehicle, after observing the driver pull off the road, was because he was concerned for the safety of the vehicle's driver and other drivers on the roadway. In its order finding that the community caretaking exception applied, the trial court cited Orlando's testimony that "when a vehicle pulls into a breakdown lane at night, it is standard protocol to make contact with the driver in order to determine whether he or she is experiencing mechanical difficulty with the vehicle or has a medical issue." Given the trial court's findings, which are supported by the record, we conclude that the stop in this case fell within the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement.

Because our State Constitution is at least as protective as the federal Constitution in this area, see, e.g., Boyle, 148 N.H. at 307, we need not conduct a separate federal analysis.

Affirmed.

HICKS, CONBOY, and BASSETT, JJ., ...


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