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Its a crime to Refuse to Hand an Officer Your License on Request

In a November 19, 2020 decision, State v. Shaw, the NH Supreme Court ruled that a driver commits the crime of Disobeying a Police Officer if police officer asks for license and registration, and driver holds up the license to the window but refuses to hand it over.

What are Driver's Obligations When the Blue Lights Go On?

When a police officer puts on the blue lights, driver has to promptly stop. Driver has to provide license and registration on request. If asked, driver has to disclose her name, address, date of birth, and the name and address of the owner of the vehicle. There's even a section in the statute requiring the driver to "sign his name in the presence of the officer" on demand. Refusal to do any of these things is a class A misdemeanor called "Disobeying a Police Officer."

Sometimes Judging is All About Diagramming a Sentence

We want to think judging is about truth, equality, liberty. But sometimes its quite a bit less exciting than that.

To decide this case, the NH Supreme Court had to interpret this complex sentence:

“[n]o person, while driving or in charge of a vehicle, shall . . . [r]efuse, on demand of such officer, to produce his license to drive such vehicle or his certificate of registration or to permit such officer to take the license or certificate in hand for the purpose of examination.

The complaint in his case accused Shaw only of failing to "produce" the license, not refusing to permit officer to take it in hand. Shaw had held up his license so the officer could sort of see it, but refused to hand it over so the officer could actually examine it. He thought he found a clever loophole in the statute, arguing that "for the purpose of examination" modified only the last part of the sentence (permitting officer to take license or certificate in hand). So, he argued, he could just flash the license for a second, without violating the law, even if that didn't allow the officer to examine the license.

But the Court applied the“series-qualifier” canon of construction and rejected that argument.

Moral of the Story

For drivers: If the officer gives you an option ("Can I look through your car for a minute?", do what you think is right. But if the officer gives you a command, do what the officer tells you to do, making clear you are merely obeying her order. Even if it seems wrong or illegal. Fight about it in court later. This is the safe way to conduct yourself during a traffic stop. But its also gives you a better chance of winning in court.

And, its great to find a lawyer who has charisma, who has a quick mind, who has self-confidence, who seems good at persuading others. But know that mundane things sometimes matter more-like knowing how to diagram a sentence!

Read State v. Shaw

- Ted

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