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State v. Siqueiros-Valenzuela

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

April 25, 2017

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellant,


          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Santa Fe, NM Steven H. Johnston, Assistant Attorney General Albuquerque, NM for Appellant.

          Ruiz De La Torre Law Firm Carlos Ruiz de la Torre Albuquerque, NM for Appellee.


          TIMOTHY L. GARCIA, Judge.

         {1} The State of New Mexico appeals from an order of the district court suppressing evidence discovered following a traffic stop based on a violation of NMSA 1978, Section 66-7-317(A) (1978) (failure to maintain a lane). We conclude that the district court was correct in its determination. The traffic stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion, and the officer who subsequently discovered the evidence of criminal activity did so only after he stopped Defendant in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Accordingly, we affirm.


         {2} On March 20, 2013, at approximately 7:00 p.m., Officer Joseph Garcia of the New Mexico State Police was driving eastbound on Interstate 40 near Grants, New Mexico when he observed the car driven by Defendant make a legal lane change from the right lane into the left lane of this multi-lane interstate highway. As Defendant attempted to pass two semi-trucks that were in the right lane, her vehicle's left tires touched the yellow shoulder line of the left passing lane. This incident was recorded on the dash cam video of Officer Garcia's police vehicle. Once Defendant passed the semi-trucks, she then made a legal lane change back into the right lane. Other than Officer Garcia's observation of Defendant's movement in relation to the shoulder line, he "did not observe any other driving violations, erratic driving, or weaving of the vehicle within its own lane[.]" However, based on his perception that Defendant violated Section 66-7-317(A), Officer Garcia pulled Defendant over. Officer Garcia testified at the suppression hearing that "he regularly pulls over drivers for . . . a single touching [or crossing] of a lane line."

         {3} Although not of particular relevance to the issue on appeal, given the district court's suppression solely on the basis of the traffic stop, we provide the following facts for background. Upon making the traffic stop, Officer Garcia made contact with Defendant and her passenger, ran a warrant check on both, and spoke with Defendant for approximately twenty minutes before writing her two citations, one for failure to maintain a lane and one for driving without a driver's license. Once the citations were written and issued, Officer Garcia then asked Defendant if he could ask her a couple more questions. The renewed questioning went on for an additional fifteen minutes and included the questioning of the passenger. Sometime during the additional questioning-approximately twenty-seven minutes after the initial stop-Officer Garcia noted that Defendant and the passenger gave inconsistent answers to his questions. Officer Garcia then obtained consent from Defendant and the passenger to search the vehicle. Ultimately, the search of the vehicle resulted in the discovery of four bundles of methamphetamine, leading to felony charges against Defendant for trafficking of controlled substances (methamphetamine) (possession with intent to distribute) and conspiracy to commit trafficking of methamphetamine.

         {4} Defendant moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that (1) the initial stop violated the Fourth Amendment and Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution, and (2) Officer Garcia impermissibly expanded the scope of the traffic stop. The district court held a hearing on Defendant's motion. The only issue addressed by the district court was whether Officer Garcia had reasonable suspicion that Defendant violated Section 66-7-317(A). In pertinent part, Section 66-7-317(A) provides:

Whenever any roadway has been divided into two or more clearly marked lanes for traffic the following rules in addition to all others consistent herewith shall apply:
A. a vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety[.]

         {5} Officer Garcia testified at the hearing that he saw the tires on Defendant's vehicle touch the yellow line of the shoulder. However, according to the district court, Officer Garcia's dash cam video-admitted into evidence at the hearing without objection-showed that the tires on Defendant's vehicle touched, but did not cross, the yellow line, and only did so once. The district court, based upon its own observation of the incident via the dash cam video, specifically found that the only potential violation of Section 66-7-317(A) was the single touching of the shoulder line. Additionally, although Officer Garcia testified that Defendant's action "could have" constituted "some type" of safety risk to herself and her passenger, the district court found the evidence of a safety concern to be insufficient, especially where the video evidence showed nothing on the left-hand side of the vehicle, and the vehicle only touched the shoulder line momentarily.

         {6} At the conclusion of the suppression hearing, the district court decided that the one, brief touching of the left yellow shoulder line, where Defendant was in the process of passing two semi-trucks on the interstate, did not provide Officer Garcia with justification to conduct a traffic stop. Specifically, the district court indicated that Section 66-7-317(A)'s requirement that a driver maintain a single lane "as nearly as practicable" appears "to allow some slack" and that it is reasonable-and safe-for a driver to move as far to the left as possible when passing a semi-truck at ...

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