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State v. Laux

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

May 22, 2015

THE STATE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
v.
STEVEN LAUX

Argued: March 31, 2015

Joseph A. Foster, attorney general (Nicholas Cort, assistant attorney general, on the brief and orally), for the State.

Christopher M. Johnson, chief appellate defender, of Concord, on the brief and orally, for the defendant.

HICKS, J.

The State appeals an order of the Circuit Court (Tenney, J.) dismissing the habitual offender prosecution of the defendant, Steven Laux, based upon the State's failure to provide discovery prior to the preliminary, or probable cause, hearing in accordance with the court's standing discovery order.[*]We reverse and remand.

The following facts are supported by the record or are undisputed by the parties. The defendant was arrested for driving while certified as a habitual offender, a felony-level offense. See RSA 262:23, I (2014). A probable cause hearing was scheduled for April 21, 2014. Prior to the hearing, the defendant sought police reports from the State in accordance with the court's standing discovery order. That order provides, in relevant part: "IV. Probable Cause Hearing[:] Upon receipt of an Appearance by counsel for the defense or upon waiver of counsel, the State shall provide the defendant's counsel a copy of any prepared police reports." When the State indicated it would not comply with the order, the court postponed the probable cause hearing and allowed the parties "to brief the issue of whether or not discovery could be ordered by the Circuit Court for a Probable Cause Hearing." The court concluded that it had inherent authority to order discovery and granted the defendant's motion to dismiss the case for the State's noncompliance.

On appeal, the State argues that the circuit court lacks authority to order discovery of police reports prior to a probable cause hearing. It contends that our cases have long held "that police reports are not discoverable except as provided by statute or court rule." It then argues that neither the statute providing for criminal pre-trial discovery, see RSA 604:1-a (2001), nor the rules governing discovery in the superior court and circuit court-district divisions, see Super. Ct. Crim. R. 98, Dist. Div. R. 2.10, provide for discovery of police reports prior to the probable cause hearing.

The defendant contends that neither "RSA 604:1-a[, which] governs only discovery in the superior court, " nor "[District Division] Rule 2.10[, which] governs only cases to be tried in that court, " applies to this case. He argues that, in fact, "[n]o statute or court rule answers the question raised by this case." Thus, the defendant's argument for affirmance is not based upon an asserted right to discovery granted by statute or rule, but rather upon the converse proposition that no statute or rule prohibits the circuit court from ordering the disclosure of police reports prior to a probable cause hearing. The defendant asserts that "in the absence of any statutory or rule-based prohibition, a circuit court judge has the inherent authority to order the disclosure of already-prepared police reports prior to a probable cause hearing."

Because the parties agree that no statute or court rule specifically authorizes discovery prior to the probable cause hearing, our inquiry is limited to whether the circuit court possesses the inherent authority to order that discovery. Cf. State v. Carter, 167 N.H. 161, 168 (2014) (observing that nothing in former Superior Court "Rule 98 prohibits the superior court from ordering discovery prior to" the time discovery is triggered under that rule). That inquiry is a question of law that we review de novo. See, e.g., State v. Dowdy, 792 N.W.2d 230, 236 (Wis. Ct. App. 2010) (noting that question of trial court's inherent authority is a question of law reviewed de novo), aff'd, 808 N.W.2d 691 (Wis. 2012); cf. In the Matter of O'Neil & O'Neil, 159 N.H. 615, 622 (2010) (treating issue of whether family division had inherent power to issue restraining order to secure safety of its facilities and staff as a question of the court's jurisdiction subject to de novo review).

The circuit court is a court of limited jurisdiction. See RSA 490-F:3 (Supp. 2014) (conferring upon circuit court the jurisdiction, powers and duties of the former probate and district courts and the former family division). As such, it is "not vested with as broad inherent powers as courts of superior and general jurisdiction." State v. Flynn, 110 N.H. 451, 453 (1970) (discussing former district courts). Nevertheless, "[t]he fact that . . . a court's jurisdiction is limited by statute[] does not necessarily negate a court's inherent authority." In the Matter of Stapleton & Stapleton, 159 N.H. 694, 697 (2010).

Our cases have recognized certain inherent powers of the former district courts, including the power to order competency evaluations, State v. Gagne, 129 N.H. 93, 97 (1986), and impose sanctions, Emerson v. Town of Stratford, 139 N.H. 629, 631 (1995). Although Gagne centered on the court's "inherent authority to protect a defendant's constitutional rights, " Gagne, 129 N.H. at 97, "there is no general constitutional right to discovery in a criminal case, " State v. Heath, 129 N.H. 102, 109 (1986) (quotation omitted), nor has the defendant claimed any constitutional right to the discovery at issue.

The inherent power of a court to order competency evaluations "stems from a court's necessary power to control the proceedings before it." Emerson, 139 N.H. at 631. We have also recognized, more generally, that "[c]ourts of justice have power, as a necessary incident to their general jurisdiction, to make such orders in relation to the cases pending before them, as are necessary to the progress of the cases and the dispatch of business." Garabedian v. William Company, 106 N.H. 156, 157 (1965) (quotation omitted). Thus, with respect to the trial of a criminal offense within the jurisdiction of the former district courts, we have recognized the district court's inherent authority, as a trial court, "to rule in its discretion upon matters relating to pre-trial discovery." State v. Sorrell, 120 N.H. 472, 475 (1980); see also State v. Healey, 106 N.H. 308, 309 (1965) (noting that a trial court – there the superior court – "has the inherent power in its discretion to compel discovery in a criminal case if the interests of justice so require").

Sorrell does not answer whether the circuit court had inherent authority to order discovery in this case, however, because the circuit court did not try the offense, and indeed did not have jurisdiction to do so. Rather the proceeding at issue was a preliminary hearing. Accordingly, we examine the nature of that proceeding to determine whether the discovery ordered was "necessary to the progress of the case[] and the dispatch of business." Garabedian, 106 N.H. at 157 (quotation omitted).

"The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to determine whether probable cause exists to believe that an offense has been committed, which is beyond the jurisdiction of the court to try, and that the accused committed it . . . ." State v. St. Arnault, 114 N.H. 216, 217-18 (1974) (quotation omitted); see RSA 596-A:7 (2001). It is not a trial to determine guilt or innocence, but is rather "a judicial inquiry to determine whether probable cause exists for the accused to be bound over to a grand jury." State v. Chase, 109 N.H. 296, ...


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