A stop for a faulty tail light that went too farApril 23, 2014 4:15 pm 4 Comments
In State v Hillman Blesdell-Moore the NH Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Blesdell-Moore’s conviction for possession of marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms with the intent to distribute must be reversed. The Court reversed the decision of the trial court (Vaughn, J.) who ruled the search that ultimately lead to discovery of the drugs was constitutional.
Blesdell-Moore was pulled over by Officer Roy Holland of the Enfield Police Department for a defective tail light. Officer Holland did not observe any erratic operation prior to stopping Blesdell-Moore. Once Officer Holland gave Blesdell-Moore a warning about the tail light and confirmed his license and registration were valid, he expanded the scope of the stop by asking to see Blesdell-Moore’s tongue. He also noted that Blesdell-Moore seemed nervous. Officer Holland claimed that Blesdell-Moore’s tongue looked green and that was an indication that he had been smoking marijuana.
Officer Holland searched Blesdell-Moore and found two wads of cash on him. He asked Blesdell-Moore if he had been smoking marijuana and Blesdell-Moore initially denied it, but later admitted that he had smoked the previous day.
At some point Blesdell-Moore’s father called him on his cell phone and Officer Holland took his phone and talked to his father telling him he was allowing Blesdell-Moore to drive the truck home and get his tail light fixed. After the call Officer Holland asked Blesdell-Moore if he had drugs in the truck and Blesdell-Moore said he did not.
Officer Holland told Blesdell-Moore he was free to go and both men started walking back to their vehicles. At this point Officer Holland asked if a police dog would smell drugs in the truck and Blesdell-Moore said he did not think so. Officer Holland remained within earshot of Blesdell-Moore and radioed dispatch requesting a canine. At this point he heard Blesdell-Moore lament that he was “screwed” and then he confronted him again ultimately getting Blesdell-Moore to admit he had drugs in the truck. A search of the truck yielded the drugs that led to Blesdell-Moore’s convictions.
The NH Supreme Court ruled that a motor vehicle stop has to be limited to the reason for the stop (in this case, the tail light). A police officer must have a specific articulable reason to expand the scope of a stop into an investigation of another crime (in this case possession of a controlled drug).
Officer Holland’s observations that Blesdell-Moore was nervous was not enough to expand the scope of the stop into a drug investigation. Officer Holland had no right to ask Blesdell-Moore to stick out his tongue based on his observations. Further, his observation that Blesdell-Moore had a green tongue did not give Officer Holland a reason to further detain him and continue to investigate whether he had drugs.
Ultimately, the Court found this was essentially a fishing expedition and ruled that all the evidence obtained should have been suppressed by the trial court.
This post was written by Jonathan Cohen