United States v. Potter

Decision Date08 July 2022
Docket NumberCrim. No. 21-cr-156-JL
Parties UNITED STATES of America v. Steven POTTER
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Hampshire

610 F.Supp.3d 402


Crim. No. 21-cr-156-JL

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire.

Signed July 8, 2022

Joachim H. Barth, Assistant US Attorney, US Attorney's Office, Concord, NH, Alexander S. Chen, DOJ-USAO, Concord, NH, for United States of America.

Eric Wolpin, Public Defender, Federal Defender's Office, Concord, NH, for Steven Potter.


Joseph N. Laplante, United States District Judge

In advance of his trial on one count of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance, see 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C), defendant Steven Potter filed a motion to suppress evidence.1 The motion turns on whether a police officer's stop of the vehicle in which Potter was a passenger was constitutionally valid, such that the resulting seizure of controlled substances from Potter's bag and his inculpatory statements can stand. The officer stopped the vehicle because the driver failed to signal before the roadway merged--reducing from two lanes to one, wide lane that gradually narrowed. Potter asserts that the signaling statute did not require the driver to signal, so the officer conducted a traffic stop without probable cause to believe that a traffic violation occurred or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The government contends that the statute is ambiguous as to whether a signal was required under these circumstances, but the officer's actions were nevertheless objectively reasonable and therefore lawful.

After conducting an evidentiary hearing, viewing the roadway, and reviewing additional briefing at the court's invitation,2 the court grants the motion. The court finds that the plain language of the purportedly

610 F.Supp.3d 406

applicable statute is unambiguous and did not require the driver to signal under these circumstances. Further, because the statute is unambiguous, the officer's mistaken belief that the driver violated the statute was not objectively reasonable under the agreed-to standard for reasonableness.

I. Applicable legal standard

Potter bears a threshold burden to show a Fourth Amendment violation in support of his motion to suppress, which he has met. United States v. Young, 835 F.3d 13, 19 (1st Cir. 2016) ; see also Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 132 n.1, 99 S.Ct. 421, 58 L.Ed.2d 387 (1978) ("The proponent of a motion to suppress has the burden of establishing that his own Fourth Amendment rights were violated by the challenged search or seizure."). This includes the "burden of establishing that he was seized" or searched without a warrant. United States v. Fields, 823 F.3d 20, 25 (1st Cir. 2016). Once Potter shows that a warrantless search or seizure occurred, the government bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the warrantless search or seizure was nevertheless lawful. See United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 178 n.14, 94 S.Ct. 988, 39 L.Ed.2d 242 (1974) ("[T]he controlling burden of proof at suppression hearings should impose no greater burden than proof by a preponderance of the evidence." (citing Lego v. Twomey, 404 U.S. 477, 488-89, 92 S.Ct. 619, 30 L.Ed.2d 618 (1972) )); United States v. Schaefer, 87 F.3d 562, 569 (1st Cir. 1996) ("The government bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that" the consensual search exception to the warrant requirement applies).

II. Background

The court makes the following findings of fact based on the testimony and other evidence submitted at the suppression hearing. The government called Officer Nicholas Kapteyn of the Hooksett Police Department as a witness, and Potter called Federal Public Defender Investigator J. Arsenault. The parties entered several exhibits into evidence by agreement, including the relevant police report. The court also took a "view" of the intersection in question prior to the suppression hearing by driving through it several times. Neither party objected to the court's view or moved to exclude it from consideration.3

On May 31, 2021, shortly before 7:00 p.m., Officer Kapteyn was driving northbound in his marked cruiser on Hooksett Road in Hooksett, New Hampshire, near the intersection of Legends Drive and Lindsay Road.4 The northbound side of Hooksett Road is a two-lane road as it approaches the intersection with Legends Drive. Officer Kapteyn was driving in the left lane.5 After the intersection with Legends Drive, the northbound lanes of Hooksett Road merge together and eventually narrow into a one-lane road.6 Before the dotted line separating the two lanes ends, there is a sign on the right side of the road indicating that the two lanes become one.7 The court will refer to this portion of Hooksett Road as the "narrowing point." The photograph below depicts the narrowing point.8

610 F.Supp.3d 407

And this photograph depicts the narrowing point from above.

The following depicts the sign that appears before the narrowing point:

610 F.Supp.3d 408

The sign does not resemble the actual roadway or the configuration of the narrowing point, which does not present a termination of the right lane or require a lane change, abrupt shift, or the crossing of a middle or dotted line. About 1.5 miles north of this sign, the roadway presents a somewhat similar, but not identical, narrowing point. The signage there, however, contains not only the diagram depicted above, but also the words "Right Lane Ends."9

Officer Kapteyn observed a gray Volkswagen Jetta that was travelling in the right lane before the narrowing point "start[ ] to merge left or move left" in front of his cruiser after the dotted line distinguishing the two lanes ended, without using a signal.10 Importantly, Officer Kapteyn did not see the vehicle execute a lane change, or cross the dotted line. Officer Kapteyn, believing that the driver of the Jetta had committed a traffic violation by failing to signal, activated his blue lights and stopped the vehicle.11

Officer Kapteyn approached the vehicle, identified himself to the driver and passenger, and explained the reason for the stop.12 The driver, Shana Booth, provided her license to the officer.13 Officer Kapteyn asked the passenger, Potter, if he would be willing to identify himself. Potter told the officer that he did not have an identification on him, and then incorrectly identified himself as "Jason Brady."14

Officer Kapteyn eventually learned of Potter's true identity and confirmed that he had outstanding arrest warrants in two New Hampshire counties. Potter was then handcuffed, placed under arrest, and put in the back of Officer Kapteyn's cruiser.15 Officer Kapteyn then seized Potter's black bag and searched it prior to transporting Potter to the county jail for his pending warrants. He found suspected narcotics inside the bag, leading to an indictment charging Potter with Possession with Intent to Distribute Controlled Substances, 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) & (b)(1)(C).16

III. Analysis

The court acknowledges that what follows may appear as an excessively lengthy, highly formalistic, analysis of a simple traffic law. As more fully explained infra Section IV, however, the downstream constitutional question warrants the time and care expended in the analysis of the statute.

610 F.Supp.3d 409

The crux of Potter's suppression motion is the constitutionality of Officer Kapteyn's stop, as the seizure of incriminating evidence and allegedly inculpatory statements flow from that stop. "A traffic stop for a suspected violation of law is a ‘seizure’ of the occupants of the vehicle and therefore must be conducted in accordance with the Fourth Amendment." Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 60, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014) (quoting Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 255-259, 127 S.Ct. 2400, 168 L.Ed.2d 132 (2007) ). To justify this type of seizure, the traffic stop must either be based on "probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred" or "reasonably grounded" suspicion that "criminal activity is afoot." Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996) ; Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323, 330, 129 S.Ct. 781, 172 L.Ed.2d 694 (2009).

Officer Kapteyn's sole basis for stopping Booth was her failure to use a signal when moving through the narrowing point on Hooksett Road, which Officer Kapteyn considered a violation of RSA 265:45. This statute ("signaling statute"), entitled "Turning Movements and Required Signals," provides as follows:

265:45 Turning Movements and Required Signals

I. No person shall turn a vehicle at an intersection unless the vehicle is in proper position upon the roadway as required in RSA 265:42, or turn a vehicle to enter a private road or driveway, or otherwise turn a vehicle from a direct course or move right or left upon a roadway unless and until such movement can be made with reasonable safety. No person shall so turn any vehicle without giving an appropriate signal in the manner hereinafter provided.

II. A signal of intention to turn right or left when required shall be given continuously during not less than

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1 cases
  • United States v. Potter
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • August 22, 2023
    ...signaling statute requires a signal before turning, changing lanes, or starting from 3 a parked position." United States v. Potter, 610 F.Supp.3d 402, 410 (D.N.H. 2022). Because the statute enumerates three acts that do require a signal, the court reasoned, the fact that it does not include......

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