Court overturns conviction based on Enfield man’s green tongue at traffic stop
A police officer who stopped a driver for a defective taillight acted unlawfully when he asked to see the man’s tongue, then used its green hue as the basis for a marijuana arrest, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The court reversed the drug convictions of the man, Hillman Blesdell-Moore, saying the Enfield officer who stopped the 18-year-old in 2011 had no basis to ask to see his tongue or continue questioning him about whether a drug-sniffing dog might detect drugs in his pickup truck.
Officer Roy Holland’s request transformed the routine traffic stop into an unconstitutional search for evidence of drug possession, the court ruled unanimously.
Holland testified that Blesdell-Moore’s driving was fine before the stop and there was no evidence of impairment. Holland noted that the driver was nervous and his eyes were bloodshot, but the court determined these “otherwise innocent factors” did not amount to a reasonable suspicion of drug activity. The officer did not detect any odor of marijuana and saw no drugs when he approached the truck.
The trial court barred evidence of Holland’s request to see Blesdell-Moore’s tongue and description of the green film he observed, but let in the several bags of marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms that Blesdell-Moore eventually told the officer he had in his truck. The Supreme Court ruled that all evidence of drug possession with intent to sell should have been suppressed.
“Although the brief inspection of the defendant’s tongue did not prolong the stop, we conclude that the search altered the fundamental nature of the stop by transforming it from a routine traffic stop into an investigation of potential drug activity,” the court ruled.
After Blesdell-Moore repeatedly told Holland he didn’t have any drugs, the officer returned his license and registration and gave him a verbal warning to fix the taillight. Holland even spoke to Blesdell-Moore’s father, who called his son’s cell phone during the stop, and assured him that his son was going to drive the vehicle home and park it until he could get the light fixed. He then told Blesdell-Moore he was free to go.
As Blesdell-Moore was getting into his truck, Holland approached and asked whether he had marijuana in his truck. He said he didn’t, and denied Holland’s request to search his truck.
Holland then asked whether a drug-sniffing canine would detect drugs in the truck and then asked dispatch to send a canine unit to the scene. Blesdell-Moore then confessed he had a couple of ounces of marijuana and mushrooms in the truck.
The court said a traffic stop amounts to a seizure and that officers must limit its purpose to the reason for the stop and not expand it to a search for evidence of criminal activity unless they have “a reasonable and articulable suspicion” that such activity exists.
“Holland was determined to conduct a drug investigation unsupported by reasonable suspicion,” the justices said. “This is especially troubling in light of the defendant’s youth and Holland’s statement to (his) father that he would be releasing the defendant to return home.”
Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Woodcock declined to comment on the ruling.