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State v. Cora

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

June 27, 2017

THE STATE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
v.
DANIEL JESUS CORA

          Argued: January 26, 2017

         Hillsborough-northern judicial district

          Joseph A. Foster, attorney general (Sean R. Locke, assistant attorney general, on the brief and orally), for the State.

          Christine C. List, assistant appellate defender, of Concord, on the brief and orally, for the defendant.

          HICKS, J.

         The State appeals an order of the Superior Court (Abramson, J.) granting the motion filed by the defendant, Daniel Jesus Cora, to suppress all evidence obtained from the warrantless entry by the police into his vehicle. See RSA 606:10 (2001). On appeal, the State contends that the police were allowed to enter the vehicle without a warrant either under the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement, which the State asks that we adopt under the State Constitution, or because the defendant had a diminished expectation of privacy in the interior space of his vehicle that is visible to the public. Under the federal automobile exception, police officers, with probable cause to search "a lawfully stopped vehicle, " may conduct a warrantless search "of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search." United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 825 (1982).

         The State urges us to overrule our decision in State v. Sterndale, 139 N.H. 445, 449-50 (1995), in which we declined to adopt, under Part I, Article 19 of the State Constitution, the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement as articulated in Ross and other Supreme Court cases. Alternatively, the State asks that we conclude that Sterndale has been abrogated by our decision in State v. Goss, 150 N.H. 46, 48-49 (2003), and that we adopt a "slightly more narrow exception" to the warrant requirement based upon the defendant's diminished expectation of privacy in the "publicly visible areas of his car."

         We decline to overrule Sterndale. However, we agree with the State that Sterndale has been abrogated by Goss, at least in part, and that its abrogation requires that we re-evaluate whether to adopt an automobile exception to our warrant requirement. We now recognize a limited automobile exception to the warrant requirement pursuant to which the police do not need to obtain a warrant to enter an automobile when the vehicle has been lawfully stopped while in transit and the police have probable cause to believe that a plainly visible item in the vehicle is contraband.

         In this case, the police did not need a warrant before entering the defendant's vehicle because the vehicle was subject to a lawful traffic stop, and the police had probable cause to believe that the baggie and cigarette, which were plainly visible, were drugs. Accordingly, we reverse and remand.

         I. Relevant Facts

         The trial court found, or the record establishes, the following facts. The defendant's vehicle was pulled over by Manchester Police Officer Day because it ran a red light and "cut . . . off" Day's cruiser. The defendant was the driver of the vehicle and had two passengers with him. While Day spoke with the defendant, he noticed the odor of fresh marijuana. Day returned to his cruiser, ran a license check on the defendant, and requested that another officer assist him. When the other officer, Officer Horn, arrived on the scene, Day asked the defendant to exit the vehicle while Horn spoke with the passenger sitting in the front seat. Day told the defendant that he smelled marijuana in the automobile. The defendant admitted that he sometimes smoked marijuana inside his vehicle. When Day advised the defendant that the marijuana smelled fresh, the defendant admitted that there were a "couple roaches" in the vehicle. Day asked the defendant to consent to a search of the automobile; the defendant declined to do so.

         Meanwhile, Horn asked the passenger sitting in the front seat to get out of the vehicle. From outside the vehicle, Horn saw that near the doorjamb of the front passenger side of the vehicle were a "tied-off baggie" containing a brown, powdery substance and a "cigarette" containing a leafy, green substance. Horn called Day's attention to the items. Based upon his training and expertise, Day believed that the baggie contained heroin and that the cigarette contained marijuana. Day seized the baggie and cigarette from the vehicle.

         The defendant was charged with one misdemeanor and one felony count of possession of a controlled drug. See RSA 318-B:2, I (2011). Before trial, he moved to suppress all evidence obtained from Day's warrantless entry into his vehicle. The defendant argued that the search of his vehicle was unconstitutional because it was not authorized by a warrant and because it did not fall within a judicially-recognized exception to the warrant requirement. The defendant contended that, contrary to the police officers' assertions, the plain view exception did not allow Day to enter his vehicle. The defendant brought his motion under both the State and Federal Constitutions.

         The trial court granted the defendant's motion, over the State's objection, agreeing with him that the plain view exception did not justify Day's entry into the defendant's vehicle. The trial court observed that Day's entry would be justified under the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement, but that, in Sterndale, this court had declined to adopt that exception under the State Constitution. The State moved to reconsider, arguing that the trial court had misapplied Sterndale in light of the expectation of privacy analysis that we adopted in Goss. The State contended that, because the defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the area of the vehicle in which the evidence had been found, Day was not ...


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