United States v. Potter

Docket Number22-1579
Decision Date22 August 2023
PartiesUNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellant, v. STEVEN POTTER, Defendant, Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit



STEVEN POTTER, Defendant, Appellee.

No. 22-1579

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

August 22, 2023


Alexander S. Chen, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Jane E. Young, United States Attorney and Seth R. Aframe, Assistant United States Attorney, were on brief, for appellant.

Judith Mizner, Assistant Federal Public Defender, for appellee.


Before Kayatta, Howard, and Montecalvo, Circuit Judges.


In May 2021, a Hooksett, New Hampshire police officer, Nicholas Kapteyn, stopped a vehicle for failure to use a turn signal on a road that narrows from two lanes to one lane. Steven Potter was a passenger in the car, and the officer soon discovered that Potter had outstanding arrest warrants. The officer arrested Potter and seized a bag from him, which contained narcotics. Potter was ultimately charged with possession with intent to distribute controlled substances.

Prior to his trial, Potter filed a motion to suppress the items seized during the traffic stop, arguing that the stop was unlawful because New Hampshire law did not require use of a turn signal at the merge point on the roadway where the vehicle was stopped. If no turn signal was required, Potter argued, the officer lacked either probable cause to believe that a traffic violation occurred or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The district court granted the motion to suppress, agreeing with Potter that the New Hampshire statute (N.H. Rev. Stat. § 265:45) did not require a turn signal at the merge point. The government filed an interlocutory appeal of that decision, which is now before us for review. See 18 U.S.C. § 3731.


In reaching its decision, the district court concluded that "[i]n plain terms, the [New Hampshire] signaling statute requires a signal before turning, changing lanes, or starting from


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 "merging, moving right or left, or travelling on a roadway that narrows or merges from two lanes into one[] means that the statute does not require drivers to use a signal in these three circumstances." Id. at 411.

In the direction that the vehicle was traveling, the roadway at issue transitions from two lanes to one lane, accompanied by a sign that illustrates an abrupt end to the right lane and dotted lines approaching the point on the sign where the right lane ends. The district court concluded that the sign "does not resemble the actual roadway or the configuration of the narrowing point." Potter, 610 F.Supp.3d at 408. Rather, it found, the actual roadway "merged two lanes into one," with "merge" "signif[ying] traveling forward on a straight roadway that narrows or blends two lanes into one." Id. at 410. Before conducting the traffic stop, Officer Kapteyn saw the vehicle travelling in the right lane, then saw it "'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." Id. at 408 (alteration in original). The court concluded that this situation did not require the driver to complete a lane change -- a concept the court defined based on "common, ordinary meaning" as "a departure from one lane


and the entry into an adjacent, parallel lane." Id. at 411. Since the maneuver constituted a "merge" instead of a "lane change," no turn signal was required. The district court further concluded that the sign -- which the New Hampshire Department of Safety Division of Motor Vehicles Driver's Manual describes as a warning sign meaning "Lane Ends" -- "cannot serve to reimagine the physical realities of the road" and "is consistent with the court's description of two lanes blending, just as it is consistent with the right lane ending, since the signs as defined in the Driver Manual do[] not draw a distinction between these two scenarios." Id. at 412 n.20. The court also concluded that the statute was unambiguous, so the officer's belief that a turn signal was required was not an objectively reasonable mistake of law. Id. at 423.

On appeal, the government does not challenge the district court's conclusion that a turn signal was not required by law. Instead, it argues that the stop was nevertheless justified because the officer either made a reasonable mistake of fact or a reasonable mistake of law (or both) when concluding that a turn signal was required. We address these arguments in turn, ultimately concluding that the stop was not objectively reasonable.



In reviewing a grant of a motion to suppress, we review the district court's legal conclusions de novo and findings of fact for clear error. United States v. Reyes, 24 F.4th 1, 11 (1st Cir. 2022); United States v. Orth, 873 F.3d 349, 353 (1st Cir. 2017).

"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 (2014) (citing Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 255-59 (2007)). There may not be complete clarity as to whether a stop for a traffic violation must be supported by probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Compare United States v. Miles, 18 F.4th 76, 79 (1st Cir. 2021) (a traffic stop for failing to keep right except to pass "requires, at a bare minimum, 'reasonable suspicion'" (quoting Heien, 574 U.S. at 60)) with Reyes, 24 F.4th at 17 ("the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable" under the Fourth Amendment "[w]here the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred" (quoting Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10 (1996))).[1]


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