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State v. Benavidez

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

August 8, 2017

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellee,
CRAIG C. BENAVIDEZ, Defendant-Appellant.

         APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF DOÑA ANA COUNTY Fernando R. Macias, District Judge

          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Santa Fe, NM Elizabeth Ashton, Assistant Attorney General Albuquerque, NM for Appellee

          Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender Kimberly Chavez Cook, Assistant Appellate Defender Santa Fe, NM for Appellant



         {1} Defendant Craig Benavidez was convicted of possession of methamphetamine, possession of drug paraphernalia, no driver's license, and no insurance. Defendant argues that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions and that the prosecutor made improper comments during closing that contributed to the guilty verdicts. For the reasons that follow, we affirm Defendant's convictions.


         {2} At trial, Deputy Joe Medina, of the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Department, testified that he stopped Defendant for driving with expired license plates. Defendant had a female passenger in the vehicle. Deputy Medina testified that on stopping Defendant, he parked directly behind Defendant's vehicle and that he could see clearly into the vehicle from his position because it had no glass on the rear window. Deputy Medina asked Defendant for his driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance, and Defendant responded that he did not have a driver's license on him. Defendant was also unable to produce proof of insurance or registration for the vehicle. Deputy Medina conducted a license inquiry based on Defendant's name and date of birth, which showed that Defendant had outstanding warrants for his arrest.

{3} Deputy Medina then removed Defendant from the vehicle, handcuffed him, and placed him in the rear seat of his patrol car. Deputy Medina testified that during this time, he was able to see the passenger through his peripheral vision. After about a minute, Deputy Juan Flores arrived. Both officers testified that they watched the passenger for officer safety reasons while she remained in the vehicle and that she did not move. Deputy Medina then conducted an inventory search of the vehicle. At that point, the passenger had been in the vehicle for two to three minutes. The officers removed her from the vehicle, allowing her to retrieve her purse from the passenger side floorboard. During the vehicle search, Deputy Medina located a baggie of methamphetamine and a glass pipe of the type used to smoke methamphetamine. Deputy Medina testified that the pipe and the baggie were "right next to each other" underneath the driver's seat near the driver's side door. The officers then detained and handcuffed the passenger before continuing the search. No other contraband was discovered. At that point the officers released the passenger from detention, and Deputy Flores gave her a ride home. Deputy Medina testified that he did not believe that the passenger was involved in illegal activity because the drugs had been discovered under the driver's seat.

         {4} Defendant was then transported to the sheriff's station. Agent Edgar Vega of the Metro Narcotics Task Force testified that Defendant volunteered a rambling unsolicited explanation for the presence of the drugs, stating that he had enemies who might have planted the contraband. Defendant also said that he did yard work and often put trash in the bed of the truck, suggesting he may have inadvertently placed the methamphetamine and pipe in the vehicle. Defendant told Agent Vega that he had a driver's license, but that it was not on him that day because it had gone through the washing machine, and that the truck was not insured or registered. Agent Vega testified that the interview was not recorded because he believed the recorder to be on and recording the interview but only realized after the interview was over that it had not been on.

         {5} Defendant was charged with possession of methamphetamine, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 30-31-23(E) (2011); possession of paraphernalia contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 30-31-25.1(A) (2001); having no driver's license, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 66-5-2(A)(1) (2013); having no proof of insurance, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 66-5-205(B) (2013); and having expired registration plates, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 66-3-18(B) (2007). Following a jury trial, Defendant was convicted on all counts and now appeals.


         1. Sufficiency of the Evidence

{6} Defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support his convictions for having no driver's license, having no proof of insurance, possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession of methamphetamine. "The test for sufficiency of the evidence is whether substantial evidence of either a direct or circumstantial nature exists to support a verdict of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt with respect to every element essential to a conviction." State v. Duran, 2006-NMSC-035, ¶ 5, 140 N.M. 94, 140 P.3d 515 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "We do not reweigh the evidence or substitute our judgment for that of the fact finder as long as there is sufficient evidence to support the verdict." State v. Gipson, 2009-NMCA-053, ¶ 4, 146 N.M. 202, 207 P.3d 1179. "In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, we must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the guilty verdict, indulging all reasonable inferences and resolving all conflicts in the evidence in favor of the verdict." State v. Cunningham, 2000-NMSC-009, ¶ 26, 128 N.M. 711, 998 P.2d 176.

         {7} Defendant first argues that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for driving without a license. Defendant was charged with violating Section 66-5-2(A)(1), which provides in relevant part: "Except those expressly exempted from the Motor Vehicle Code, no person shall drive any motor vehicle . . . upon a highway in this state unless the person: (1) holds a valid license issued under the provisions of the Motor Vehicle Code[.]" The jury instruction followed the language of Section 66-5-2(A)(1) and required a finding that Defendant "did not hold a valid driver's license under the provisions of the [M]otor [V]ehicle [C]ode." See State v. Smith, 1986 ...

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