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State v. Mfataneza

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

May 10, 2019


          Argued: February 14, 2019

          Gordon J. MacDonald, attorney general (Sean R. Locke, assistant attorney general, on the memorandum of law and orally), for the State.

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

          LYNN, C.J.

         Following a bench trial on stipulated facts, the defendant, Jean Claude Mfataneza, was convicted of aggravated driving while intoxicated. See RSA 265-A:3 (2014). On appeal, he argues that the Trial Court (McNamara, J.) erred in concluding that RSA 265-A:8 (2014) (amended 2016) requires only that the Administrative License Suspension (ALS) warnings be reasonably conveyed by reasonable methods in order to satisfy the statute and be admissible at trial, rather than that the warnings be subjectively understood by the individual driver. We affirm.

         The pertinent facts are as follows. On December 12, 2016, the defendant was arrested by Concord police for driving while intoxicated. Upon arriving at the police station, the defendant was placed in a holding cell. At that point, an officer twice asked the defendant, who had emigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo and who is fluent in Kinyarwanda and Swahili, what language he spoke, to which he replied English. The officer testified that she knew the defendant and had dealt with him frequently - at least once a month. The officer explained that the defendant "usually understands what [she is] saying" and will speak with her in English even when he is intoxicated. However, because the defendant could not read English, the officer read the ALS form aloud to him. The officer read each line to the defendant, pausing after each to ask the defendant if he understood. The defendant affirmatively nodded his head after each line was read to him, signed the portion of the form stating that he was informed of his rights, and agreed to testing. According to the officer, at no point during this interaction did the defendant indicate that he was having difficulty understanding her, and she observed nothing to indicate that he could not understand her.

         Prior to trial, the defendant moved to exclude the admission of the ALS form and corresponding breathalyzer test results from evidence, arguing that he did not sufficiently understand the rights outlined in the form because of his limited proficiency with the English language. The defendant took the position that, as with Miranda warnings, a person must knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently consent to testing in order for the results to be admissible in a trial. He argued that his consent did not meet this standard because, due to the language barrier, he was unable to understand the ALS warnings read to him, and therefore could not consent to testing. Testifying mostly through an interpreter, the defendant explained that he signed the form because in the Congo, where he is from, people are required to do what police officers tell them to do. Following an evidentiary hearing on the motion, the trial court rejected the defendant's argument.[1] After considering the different approaches used by courts in other jurisdictions, the court adopted what it characterized as the "more reasoned approach," which requires only that the officer reasonably convey the warnings in a reasonable manner. Applying that standard to the facts of the case, the trial court concluded that, given the officer's prior history with the defendant and the defendant's statements to her that he spoke English, the officer conveyed the warnings in a reasonable manner. The defendant was thereafter convicted, and this appeal followed.

         The defendant argues that the trial court erred in adopting the reasonable methods approach as a basis for denying his motion in limine. According to the defendant, New Hampshire law requires that the driver understand the ALS warnings, and, therefore, that it must be established that "no deficit in English-language fluency caused the driver to fail to understand the statements on the ALS form." It follows, in the defendant's view, that "to discharge their obligations under RSA 265-A:8, the police must read (or provide in writing) the ALS warnings in a language the driver understands."

         Resolving the issue on appeal requires us to determine the proper interpretation of RSA 265-A:8. See State v. Balch, 167 N.H. 329, 332 (2015). "The interpretation of a statute is a question of law, which we review de novo." Id. "We are the final arbiters of the legislature's intent as expressed in the words of the statute considered as a whole." Id. "When we interpret a statute, we look first to the statute's language, and, if possible, construe that language according to its plain and ordinary meaning." Id. During this exercise, we "can neither ignore the plain language of the legislation nor add words which the lawmakers did not see fit to include." State v. Cobb, 143 N.H. 638, 644 (1999) (quotation omitted). Thus, "[w]e do not read words or phrases in isolation, but in the context of the entire statutory scheme." Balch, 167 N.H. at 332. "Our goal is to apply statutes in light of the legislature's intent in enacting them, and in light of the policy sought to be advanced by the entire statutory scheme." Id. Where, as here, the issue is one of first impression in New Hampshire, we further look to other states' interpretations of similar statutory provisions for guidance. Cf. State v. Berrocales, 141 N.H. 262, 263-64 (1996) (looking to other states' interpretations of similar constitutional provisions for guidance in a matter of first impression).

         Pursuant to New Hampshire's Implied Consent Law, a motor vehicle operator "shall be deemed to have given consent" to the tests it describes when "arrested for any offense arising out of acts alleged to have been committed while the person was driving . . . a vehicle . . . while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or controlled drugs," provided the tests are "administered at the direction of a law enforcement officer . . . having reasonable grounds to believe the person to have been driving . . . while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or controlled drugs." RSA 265-A:4 (Supp. 2018); see State v. Jenkins, 128 N.H. 672, 675 (1986) (noting that "[t]he act of taking the test is voluntary because the very act of driving on New Hampshire's public roads implies consent to take the test").

         As we have explained in the past, "the purpose of the statute is to prevent the operation of cars by persons under the influence of intoxicating liquor," State v. Slater, 109 N.H. 279, 280 (1969), as well as to ensure "that an arrested individual makes an informed decision concerning whether or not to submit to a blood alcohol content test," State v. Dery, 126 N.H. 747, 752 (1985). Stated differently, "[t]he major premise of the implied consent law is that it will aid the prosecution of the guilty and the protection of the innocent." State v. Gallant, 108 N.H. 72, 76 (1967) (quotation omitted).

         To achieve this purpose, the statute "imposes a positive duty on the officer to do three equally important things before taking the test." Dery, 126 N.H. at 752 (quotation and ellipsis omitted). Pursuant to RSA 265-A:8, prior to testing an individual, an officer must:

(a) Inform the arrested person of his or her right to have an additional test or tests of his or her blood made by a person ...

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