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State v. Goss

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

July 17, 2014

State of New Hampshire
v.
Hunter N. Goss,

The defendant, Hunter N. Goss, appeals his conviction in the 6th Circuit Court – Hillsborough District Division (Boynton, J.), following a bench trial, on charges of driving while impaired, see RSA 265-A:2 (Supp. 2013), and transportation of alcohol by a minor, see RSA 265-A:45 (2004 & Supp. 2013). The defendant contends that the trial court erred by finding that: (1) the police had reasonable suspicion and, therefore, did not violate the New Hampshire Constitution by stopping him or the car in front of him; (2) the police did not conduct an "unauthorized sobriety checkpoint"; (3) he was driving on a way, see RSA 259:125, II (Supp. 2013); and (4) the Henniker police officer had authority to act in Warner. We affirm.

We first address the defendant's contention that the police investigatory stop of his vehicle was unconstitutional. The trial court found that the stop was based upon reasonable suspicion. We assume, without deciding, that the defendant was seized when the officer spoke to him. The defendant relies exclusively on the New Hampshire Constitution, so we address only that claim. See State v. Gowen, 150 N.H. 286, 287 (2003). To be constitutional, an investigatory stop must be supported by reasonable suspicion. State v. Sousa, 151 N.H. 297, 299 (2004). In reviewing a trial court's ruling regarding reasonable suspicion, we accept its factual findings unless they lack support in the record or are clearly erroneous. State v. Michelson, 160 N.H. 270, 272 (2010) (addressing trial court ruling on motion to dismiss). The application of the appropriate legal standard to those facts, however, is a question of law, which we review de novo. Id.

For a police officer to undertake an investigatory stop, the officer must have reasonable suspicion, based upon specific, articulable facts taken together with rational inferences from those facts, that the particular person to be stopped has been, is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity. State v. Joyce, 159 N.H. 440, 446 (2009). To determine the sufficiency of an officer's suspicion, we consider the articulable facts in light of all surrounding circumstances, keeping in mind that a trained officer may make inferences and draw conclusions from conduct that may seem unremarkable to an untrained observer. Id. A reasonable suspicion must be more than a hunch, and the articulated facts must lead somewhere specific, not just to a general sense that this is probably a bad person who may have committed some kind of crime. Id. Reasonable suspicion is a less demanding standard than probable cause not only in the sense that it can be established with information that is different in quantity of content than that required to establish probable cause, but also in the sense that reasonable suspicion can arise from information that is less reliable than that required to show probable cause. State v. Melanson, 140 N.H. 199, 201 (1995).

To determine whether an anonymous tip gives rise to reasonable suspicion, we examine the reliability and credibility of the informant and his or her basis of knowledge and then make a final judgment based upon the totality of the circumstances. Sousa, 151 N.H. at 299. A tip's veracity can be established where the police are able to corroborate details provided by the informant. State v. Christy, 138 N.H. 352, 358 (1994) (finding anonymous tip sufficient to establish probable cause). Corroboration of incriminating details carries the most weight, but corroboration of innocent detail may also lend credence to an informant's statements. Id.

In this case, we conclude that the police had reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop of the defendant's vehicle. The Warner officer received an anonymous telephone call informing him of the possibility of an under-age drinking party that night at a specific location, known as "the Minks." The caller did not state what time the party would take place. The officer drove near the Minks several hours later at a time when, in his experience, under-age drinking parties were likely to occur. Contrary to the defendant's argument, the tip was not stale at this time; the officer's actions were well within the time frame indicated by the caller. Cf. State v. Kennison, 134 N.H. 243, 249 (1991) (stating fourteen-month-old tip was stale).

The Minks is located in an "extremely remote" area accessed by a single dirt road, with no crossroads connecting to it. The road runs between Warner and Henniker. The officer testified that "there's possibly two houses in the area, " and there was no evidence that either was occupied. However, the officer heard loud noises of trucks "revving" their engines and voices coming from the Minks. Based on his experience and training, the officer concluded that a party was taking place, thereby corroborating the caller's tip. See State v. Hood, 141 N.H. 196, 198 (1996) (finding tip contributed to reasonable suspicion where police corroborated it before stopping defendant).

Because the Minks could be accessed only by the dirt road, no crossroads allowed other cars onto the road, and there was little or no traffic on the road, the trained officer could make a reasonable inference that any vehicle traveling down the dirt road away from the Minks at that time was coming from a drinking party. We conclude that these specific articulable facts, together with rational inferences from them, gave the police reasonable suspicion that any person driving on that road at that time had been or was engaged in criminal activity.

Because we conclude that the police had reasonable suspicion to support an investigatory stop of the defendant's vehicle, we need not address the defendant's standing to contest the constitutionality of the investigative stop of the car in front of him. Because the police had reasonable suspicion to support investigatory stops of the cars coming from the Minks, they were not conducting an unauthorized sobriety checkpoint. See State v. Hunt, 155 N.H. 465, 470 (2007) (distinguishing investigatory stops based on reasonable suspicion from sobriety checkpoints).

We next address the defendant's argument that the State failed to establish that the road upon which he was stopped was a way pursuant to RSA 259:125 (defining "way" for the purposes of RSA 265-A:2). When considering a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, we objectively review the record to determine whether any rational trier of fact could have found the challenged element beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Zubhuza, 166 N.H.__, __, 90 A.3d 614, 617 (2014). We consider all the evidence and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the State. Id. The defendant bears the burden of demonstrating that the evidence was insufficient. Id.

A road to which the public has access is a way as defined in RSA 259:125. State v. Lathrop, 164 N.H. 468, 470 (2012) (finding road in private community to be a way). In this case, the record supports a finding that the road in question was open to the public, publicly maintained for seasonal use, patrolled by the police, and used by the public to travel from one town to another. Based on this evidence, a rational trier of fact could find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the road is a way. To the extent that the defendant asks us to limit or overrule Lathrop, we decline to do so.

Finally, we address the defendant's argument that the trial court erred by not suppressing the evidence from the investigatory stop because the Henniker officers did not have authority to act in Warner. However, the record supports, and the defendant does not appear to challenge, the fact that Henniker and Warner have a duly executed mutual aid agreement that authorizes officers from each town to act in the other town upon request. See RSA 105:13, I (2013) (authorizing mutual aid agreements between towns). The defendant appears to argue that because his constitutional rights were violated, the officers' actions were not authorized by the mutual aid agreement. However, as discussed above, we conclude that no constitutional violation took place. Therefore, we reject the defendant's argument that the officers' actions were not authorized by the mutual aid agreement.

Affirmed.

HICKS, CONBOY AND LYNN, JJ., ...


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