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State v. Farish

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

July 31, 2017

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellee,
JOHN FARISH, Defendant-Appellant.


          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Santa Fe, NM John Kloss, Assistant Attorney General Albuquerque, NM for Appellee

          Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender Santa Fe, NM Sergio Viscoli, Appellate Defender Steven J. Forsberg, Assistant Appellate Defender Albuquerque, NM for Appellant


          HANISEE, Judge.

         {1} Defendant John Farish appeals from the district court's on-record affirmance of his convictions in metropolitan court for driving a vehicle with defective equipment, pursuant to NMSA 1978, Section 66-3-801(A) (1991), and driving under the influence (DUI), pursuant to NMSA 1978, Section 66-8-102 (2010). Defendant argues that the officer who stopped his vehicle lacked reasonable suspicion to support the stop. We affirm.


         {2} At approximately 1:30 a.m. on April 13, 2012, Defendant was stopped by Bernalillo County Sheriff's Deputy Peter Martinez on Montaño Road near Fourth Street in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The basis for the stop was that Deputy Martinez believed Defendant was violating Section 66-3-801(A) by driving a vehicle with defective equipment, specifically an improperly functioning left taillight.[1] Defendant's left taillight consisted of two bulbs: a larger upper bulb, and a smaller lower bulb. While the lower bulb was lit, the upper bulb was not. After first observing Defendant's vehicle, Deputy Martinez followed Defendant for approximately one-quarter mile, during which time he also "observed some driving behaviors that were possible for someone who might be under the influence." Specifically, he observed Defendant swerve within the lane twice in a manner that nearly drove over the lane markings, though he never saw Defendant leave the lane or touch the markings. Deputy Martinez testified that there were no other violations of law and that his only basis for stopping Defendant was the perceived taillight violation. Upon making contact with Defendant, Deputy Martinez noticed that Defendant had bloodshot, watery eyes and the smell of alcohol coming from his facial area. Deputy Martinez then initiated a DUI investigation, and Defendant was subsequently charged with DUI (first offense) and operating a vehicle with defective equipment.

         {3} Prior to trial, Defendant requested and the metropolitan court held an evidentiary hearing on the question of reasonable suspicion. After Deputy Martinez testified to the above-cited facts, Defendant argued that the charges against him should be dismissed because the testimony indicated that Defendant had two taillights that were in "working condition, " meaning that Deputy Martinez lacked reasonable suspicion of a violation of either Section 66-3-801(A) (providing, among other things, that it is a misdemeanor to operate a vehicle "which . . . is not at all times equipped with such lamps and other equipment in proper condition and adjustment as is required by [NMSA 1978, §§ 66-3-801 to -887 (1978, as amended through 2017)], " or Section 66-3-805(A) (setting forth specific requirements for tail lamps), and that there was no other reasonable basis for the stop. Defendant argued that "the light, maybe a bulb, being out was not reason enough to pull over [Defendant.]" Alternatively, Defendant argued that the stop was pretextual. The State argued that Deputy Martinez had reasonable suspicion because part of Defendant's left taillight was not lit, meaning it was not "in proper condition" as required by Section 66-3-801(A). The State also argued that Defendant failed to meet his burden of establishing that the stop was pretextual.

         {4} The metropolitan court found that Deputy Martinez had reasonable suspicion to stop Defendant's vehicle based on Deputy Martinez's observation that part of Defendant's taillight was not illuminated. It reasoned that "[one] light not working out of a two-part light would still be a defective equipment [violation]" under Section 66-3-801, i.e., it was a per se violation. The metropolitan court further found that there was no testimony elicited to support Defendant's argument that the stop was pretextual and therefore denied Defendant's motion to dismiss on that basis as well. Defendant was subsequently convicted of DUI (first offense) and driving a vehicle with defective equipment.

         {5} In his on-record appeal to the district court, Defendant argued that the trial court misapplied Section 66-3-801 because "a plain reading of [Section 66-3-801] indicates that defective equipment is defined in [S]ections 66-3-801 through 66-3-887[, ]" making it necessary to "analyze [S]ection 66-3-805(A), which defines functioning tail lamps[.]" Section 66-3-805(A) provides that "[e]very motor vehicle . . . shall be equipped with at least two tail lamps mounted on the rear" and that such lamps "shall emit a red light plainly visible from a distance of [500] feet to the rear[.]" According to Defendant, Deputy Martinez failed to articulate facts that would support reasonable suspicion that Defendant had violated Section 66-3-805(A) because Deputy Martinez conceded that he was, at all times, within 500 feet of the rear of Defendant's vehicle, thus making any suspected violation speculative rather than reasonable. The district court agreed with Defendant that "there can be no violation of Section 66-3-801 with respect to defective tail[]lights without reference to Section 66-3-805" and concluded that "to the extent Deputy Martinez relied on Section[s] 66-3-801 [and -805(A)] for a per se violation, the [district c]ourt agrees the officer made a mistake of law." However, the district court construed Section 66-3-805(C) as providing an independent basis supporting the existence of reasonable suspicion. According to the district court, Section 66-3-805(C) requires that "if a tail lamp is wired to be lighted, it must be lit when it is dark." Thus, reasoned the district court, because Deputy Martinez articulated facts that would support the conclusion that Defendant violated Section 66-3-805(C) because the upper, larger portion of one of Defendant's taillights was not lighted at 1:30 a.m. when it would have been dark, there was reasonable suspicion to stop Defendant. Accordingly, the district court affirmed Defendant's convictions. Defendant now appeals to this Court.


         Statutory Interpretation

         {6} "Statutory interpretation is an issue of law, which we review de novo." State v. Duhon, 2005-NMCA-120, ¶ 10, 138 N.M. 466, 122 P.3d 50. "Our primary goal when interpreting statutory language is to give effect to the intent of the [L]egislature." State v. Torres, 2006-NMCA-106, ¶ 8, 140 N.M. 230, 141 P.3d 1284. "We begin the search for legislative intent by looking first to the words chosen by the Legislature and the plain meaning of the Legislature's language." State v. Davis, 2003-NMSC-022, ¶ 6, 134 N.M. 172, 74 P.3d 1064 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "If the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, we must give effect to that language and refrain from further statutory interpretation." State v. Chavez, 2016-NMCA-016, ¶ 7, 365 P.3d 61 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), cert. granted, 2016-NMCERT-001, 370 P.3d 474.

         Reasonable Suspicion

         {7} "[W]e determine constitutional reasonableness de novo." State v. Dopslaf, 2015-NMCA-098, ¶ 7, 356 P.3d 559, cert. denied, 2015-NMCERT-008, 369 P.3d 368. "The appellate courts will find reasonable suspicion if the officer is aware of specific articulable facts, together with rational inferences from those facts, that when judged objectively, would lead a reasonable person to believe criminal activity occurred or was occurring." Id. ¶ 8 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "A police officer may stop a vehicle if he has an objectively reasonable suspicion that the motorist has violated a traffic law." State v. Vandenberg, 2002-NMCA-066, ¶ 17, 132 N.M. 354, 48 P.3d 92, rev'd on other grounds, 2003-NMSC-030, 134 N.M. 566, 81 P.3d 19. "The subjective belief of the officer does not in itself affect the validity of the stop; it is the evidence known to the officer that counts, not the officer's view of the governing law." State v. Hubble, 2009-NMSC-014, ¶ 8, 146 N.M. 70, 206 P.3d 579 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "[I]f an officer mistakenly believes that certain conduct violates one statute, but that conduct in fact violates a different statute, reasonable suspicion exists to stop the suspect despite the officer's mistake of law." State v. Moseley, 2014-NMCA-033, ¶ 15, 320 P.3d 517. "[W]e can ignore [an officer's] inappropriate ...

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