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State v. Robbins

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

September 21, 2017


          Argued: June 1, 2017

          Joseph A. Foster, attorney general (Scott D. Chase, attorney, and Stephen D. Fuller, assistant attorney general, on the brief, and Mr. Chase orally), for the State.

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

          LYNN, J.

         The defendant, Andrew Robbins, appeals his conviction for being a convicted felon in possession of a deadly weapon. See RSA 159:3 (2014). He argues that the Superior Court (Howard, J.) erroneously denied his motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of his arrest following a traffic stop of a vehicle in which he was a passenger. We affirm.


         The pertinent facts are as follows. On April 26, 2015, at approximately 10:30 p.m., Officer Moore of the Rochester Police Department observed a Toyota Camry traveling down the center of Chestnut Street, a two-way road, in Rochester. See RSA 265:16 (2014) (requiring vehicles to drive on right side of roadway). Moore also observed the vehicle fail to make a complete stop at a stop sign. See RSA 265:31, II (2014) (requiring vehicles to make a complete stop at a stop sign). The officer followed the vehicle and engaged his emergency lights, and the vehicle pulled to the side of the road and stopped.

         Upon approaching the vehicle, Moore immediately recognized three of the four occupants from prior traffic stops: the driver, Haley Cahill; the front passenger, Felix Urrutia; and the rear left-side passenger, Amanda Ableman. Moore knew both Cahill and Urrutia were members of a national criminal street gang known as the "Bloods." Moore observed that Cahill and Urrutia were dressed in red, a color affiliated with the gang. Moreover, Moore observed that the defendant, the rear right-side passenger, was wearing a red shirt and red bracelets. The defendant's clothing, in addition to his association with Cahill and Urrutia, indicated to Moore a potential affiliation with the Bloods. From his training, Moore knew that members of the Bloods are known to act aggressively or violently during interactions with police, especially when new to the gang. Neither Cahill nor Urrutia had acted violently towards Moore during his prior interactions with them. However, Moore was aware that Urrutia had resisted arrest by Rochester police on a prior occasion. Moore was concerned for his safety because of these observations, his preexisting knowledge of the occupants' past behavior and gang affiliation, the time of night, and the number of occupants in the vehicle.

         After obtaining Cahill's driver's license, Moore, in accordance with what he described as his regular practice, requested the name and date of birth of each passenger. It took Moore less than one minute to obtain them. Moore then returned to his cruiser and checked each of the occupants' names and dates of birth through a computer system that allows an officer to determine whether a warrant has been issued for a person's arrest. This check, which lasted less than three minutes, revealed that an arrest warrant had been issued for the defendant. Because the warrant was not an electronic bench warrant, Moore confirmed with a dispatcher that a copy of the warrant was at the Rochester police station. The warrant confirmation process took an additional three to five minutes.

         After confirming the warrant, Moore approached the vehicle and asked the defendant to step out. He then informed the defendant of the warrant and placed him under arrest. After Moore placed the defendant under arrest, he searched the defendant and found a knife in his right front pocket.

         Subsequently, the defendant was charged with one count of being a felon in possession of a deadly weapon. See RSA 159:3. Prior to trial, the defendant moved to suppress the knife, arguing that Moore unlawfully expanded the scope and duration of the stop by requesting each passenger's name and date of birth and subsequently running a warrant check on each individual. Following an evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied the defendant's motion, ruling that Moore's request for personal information and warrant check were justified because he had a reasonable, articulable suspicion of danger and concern for his safety. Following a bench trial, the trial court found the defendant guilty. This appeal followed.


         On appeal, the defendant argues that Moore unlawfully expanded the scope of the traffic stop by questioning him and conducting a warrant check. The defendant asserts that this unjustified expansion of the scope of the traffic stop violated his rights to be free from unreasonable seizures under Part I, Article 19 of the State Constitution. Because the defendant asserts a violation of his rights only under the New Hampshire Constitution, we limit our review to that claim and rely upon federal law merely to aid our analysis. See State v. Dewitt, 143 N.H. 24, 33 (1998). "When reviewing a trial court's order on a motion to suppress, we accept the trial court's factual findings unless they lack support in the record or are clearly erroneous, and we review legal conclusions de novo." State v. Blesdell-Moore, 166 N.H. 183, 187 (2014).

         The defendant advances three arguments in support of his position that we should reverse the trial court's order. First, he contends that we should decline to adopt a "bright line" rule, as advocated by the State, that would permit the police to request the identification of passengers as a matter of course during any traffic stop. Second, he asserts that Moore's request for identification and his subsequent warrant check were not supported by a reasonable, articulable suspicion of danger sufficient to justify an objectively reasonable concern for officer safety. Finally, he contends that Moore's questioning impermissibly prolonged the duration of the stop and fundamentally transformed its nature into an investigation of criminal activity. Because we conclude that ...

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