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Vehicle Stops in New Hampshire

At any giving time, there are two competing interests between motorists and police officers.  A motorist has a reasonable expectation of privacy when traveling in his or her automobile, while an officer (as a government agent), has a compelling interest in maintaining safety on public highways.  The purposes of investigative spots are to quickly resolve any suspicions that an officer may have and determine if the driver is legally operating his or her vehicle.

In the United States, officers can generally stop a motor vehicle at any time the officer observes a violation of law or has a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed.  The New Hampshire Supreme Court has held that under the New Hampshire Constitution, “a police officer may make an investigative stop of a vehicle provided that the stop is based on ‘a reasonable suspicion that the person detained had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime … [and the officer is] able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the intrusion.’”  State v. Melanson, 140 N.H. 199, 665 A.2d 338 (1995).

Under this standard, in order for a investigative vehicle stop to be lawful in New Hampshire, the stop must be viewed as objectively reasonable based on the circumstances surrounding the stop, as articulated by the officer’s testimony.   Having a “hunch” that some violation has or is occurring will not be considered a valid reason for stopping a motorist.  Depending on the overall intrusiveness of the stop, such as the length of time the motorist was detained and the events that take place during the stop, it is possible that stops based on the exact same set of circumstances could be found to be lawful or unlawful.

The issue with this rationale as it pertains to DWI in New Hampshire is that NH DWI laws allow for motorists to be charged with an offense when the vehicle is not moving under the doctrine of actual physical control.  Absent specific observations by the officer, or a tip by a citizen that leads to a reasonable suspicion, how can officers investigate vehicles that are not moving?  One exception to the general rule discussed above is the community caretaking exception.  This exception allows officers to investigate in situations in which they have a legitimate concern for the safety or welfare of an individual.  For example, if an officer observes an individual asleep or “passed out” in the driver’s seat of a vehicle, it may give rise to a concern that there is a medical issue that the officer needs to investigate.  Another example may be when a vehicle is parked and is partially blocking a travel lane with someone in the car.  In this situation, there would be a safety and welfare concern that another vehicle may have an accident with this vehicle, and possibly other concerns.

The case law in New Hampshire dealing with lawful traffic stops is extensive.  There are many grounds for challenging a stop, and each stop will have specific issues that should be argued in court, especially when a driver is facing DWI charges.  An attorney specializing in DWI cases will be able to recognize these issues and articulate the merits of a driver’s case in court.  Seeking counsel could have a significant bearing on the outcome of the case, and it is recommended that any driver facing charges consult with a knowledgeable attorney.

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