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State v. Platero

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

July 28, 2017

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
CODY PLATERO, Defendant-Appellee.

         APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF VALENCIA COUNTY James Lawrence Sanchez, District Judge

          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Santa Fe, NM John J. Woykovsky, Assistant Attorney General Albuquerque, NM for Appellant

          Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender J.K. Theodosia Johnson, Assistant Appellate Defender Santa Fe, NM for Appellee

          OPINION

          TIMOTHY L. GARCIA, Judge

         {1} This case presents the question of whether, as a preliminary matter, the State should be prohibited from presenting its evidence to establish the corpus delicti of vehicular homicide where the cause of an accident and the cause of death are to be drawn purely from circumstantial evidence and without any expert testimony. The State appeals the district court's order dismissing the charges against Defendant Cody Platero for two counts of vehicular homicide and possession of a controlled substance. The district court dismissed the charges, pursuant to Rule 5-601(B) NMRA and State v. Foulenfont, 1995-NMCA-028, 119 N.M. 788, 895 P.2d 1329. The district court found that "the State [could not] meet its burden of proving cause of death or presenting evidence of [the] cause of death" without expert testimony, which the State did not schedule to call for trial. We conclude that circumstantial evidence may be used to establish the elements of vehicular homicide and that an expert's testimony is not required as a matter of law before the State may proceed with its case in chief. The State presented sufficient facts in the indictment and at the pretrial hearings to circumstantially establish the corpus delicti of vehicular homicide. Therefore, the district court erred in finding that an expert was required as a matter of law in this case. We reverse and remand to the district court for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         {2} On December 14, 2010, the Valencia County Sheriff's Department responded to reports of a wrecked car on New Mexico Highway 47. There were no eyewitnesses to the crash. Officers on the scene observed what they believed to be "a rollover accident that resulted in the death of a female subject, who had been apparently ejected from the motor vehicle." Officers followed a pair of footprints and located Defendant, who smelled "strongly of an alcoholic beverage, had slurred speech and bloodshot watery eyes." He sustained numerous injuries, which the officers concluded were the result of being ejected from the vehicle. When interviewed by police at the hospital, Defendant initially denied knowledge of the wreck and then told officers that he and the deceased, Amber Smith, were going to the desert to have sex and that she was driving.

         {3} On January 26, 2012, a grand jury indicted Defendant on two counts of homicide by vehicle, by driving while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs and by reckless driving, in violation of NMSA 1978, Section 66-8-101(C) (2004, amended 2016). Defendant was also charged with possession of a controlled substance, in violation of NMSA 1978, Section 30-31-23 (2005, amended 2011), and leaving the scene of the accident, in violation of NMSA 1978, Section 66-7-201(C) (1989). The indictment, in pertinent part, charged Defendant "did cause the death of [decedent] in the unlawful operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or any drug . . . [or] in a reckless manner[.]"

         {4} Defendant was arraigned on March 13, 2012. The case was set for trial in March 2015. On February 18, 2015, Defendant moved to exclude or limit the testimony of State witnesses, including lab technicians and police officers, regarding the cause of the accident and the cause of death of the decedent. Defendant argued that because the State's witness list included no experts on these issues, testimony about the cause of the accident or cause of the death of the decedent would be speculation and prejudicial to Defendant. The State agreed that it would not call an expert witness to testify as to the cause of the accident and that there were no witnesses who observed the cause of the crash. Furthermore, the State did not have an autopsy report for the decedent, and no one from the Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) was on the State's witness list.

         {5} The district court held a hearing on Defendant's motion on February 25, 2015, and trial was scheduled to begin the following week, March 2, 2015. The district court asked the State how it would prove that the accident was the decedent's cause of death. The State argued that circumstantial evidence was sufficient. Defendant responded that the State could not show who was driving or what happened to cause the accident stating, "This case is all about speculation. . . . We have a problem with the sufficiency of the evidence." Defendant agreed with the district court's characterization of the motion as a "direct[ed] verdict [motion]." The district court asked the parties to provide relevant case law as to whether trial could move forward on the facts presented, otherwise the court would rule that "as a matter of law, the State does not have a critical piece of the puzzle to go forward with the case" and would dismiss pursuant to Foulenfont, 1995-NMCA-028. After a subsequent hearing on February 27, 2015, the district court dismissed counts one, two and three, related to vehicular homicide and the possession of a controlled substance, and stayed the proceedings with regard to count four, leaving the scene of an accident. The district court explained its belief that dismissal was proper because "the State cannot meet its burden of proving cause of death or presenting evidence of [the] cause of death, . . . they can't do it circumstantially on this case with lay witnesses." The district court dismissed the charges "for failure of the State to have a critical witness ready to testify [for trial]." The State timely appealed.

         DISCUSSION

         {6} "Judicial authority to rule on pretrial motions in criminal matters is outlined in Rule 5-601." State v. LaPietra, 2010-NMCA-009, ¶ 7, 147 N.M. 569, 226 P.3d 668. Rule 5-601(B) provides that "[a]ny defense, objection or request which is capable of determination without a trial on the merits may be raised before trial by motion." Id.; see State v. Gomez, 2003-NMSC-012, ¶ 8, 133 N.M. 763, 70 P.3d 753 (stating that where a motion involves factual matters that are not capable of resolution without a trial on the merits, Rule 5-601(B) requires the question to be submitted to the fact-finder). We review whether the district court was within its authority under Rule 5-601 in dismissing charges against Defendant under a de novo standard of review. See LaPietra, 2010-NMCA-009, ¶ 5 ("The contours of the district court's power to conduct a pretrial hearing on a motion to dismiss charges brought under Rule 5-601 is a legal question reviewed under a de novo standard.").

         {7} "In Foulenfont, we stated that it was proper for a district court to decide purely legal matters and dismiss a case when appropriate before trial." LaPietra, 2010-NMCA-009, ¶ 7. "Questions of fact, however, are the unique purview of the jury and, as such, should be decided by the jury alone." Id.; see Foulenfont, 1995-NMCA-028, ¶ 3 (stating that "it was improper to dismiss a failure to appear charge on the basis of a factual determination made at the preliminary hearing stage"). In Foulenfont, the purely legal issue addressed by this Court was whether a fence is a "structure" under the burglary statute; the district court had ruled it was not. 1995-NMCA-028, ¶¶ 2, 7. The state conceded that the facts of the case were not in dispute and that finding the defendant guilty turned only on the resolution of the legal question regarding the fence. Id. ¶ 6. Accordingly, we held that the district court properly resolved the legal question prior to trial and upheld the dismissal. Id. ¶¶ 10, 13. However, in such cases where the factual matters are in dispute and not capable of resolution without a trial on the merits, our Supreme Court held that the district court "lacks the authority to grant the motion prior to trial." State v. Hughey, 2007-NMSC-036, ¶ 11, 142 N.M. 83, 163 P.3d 470.

         {8} Generally, a Rule 5-601(B) motion may not be used to test the sufficiency of the State's evidence to establish the elements of the charged crime. In LaPietra, the defendants, charged with intentional or neglectful child abuse resulting in great bodily harm, brought a Foulenfont motion arguing that the state lacked evidence to prove that the defendants caused their children to be placed in a situation that endangered their life or health. LaPietra,2010-NMCA-009, ¶¶ 1, 8. On appeal, the defendants framed the issue as a legal question that asked whether the state had any evidence that would justify a jury trial. Id. ΒΆ 8. In reversing, this Court explained that "[w]hen an issue involves a specific determination or finding, especially when it is an element of the offense, it is a question that is within the unique purview ...


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