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State v. Byrom

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

October 2, 2017

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellant,
LARRY BYROM, Defendant-Appellee.


          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Santa Fe, NM

          Kenneth H. Stalter, Assistant Attorney General Albuquerque, NM for Appellant

          Arlon L. Stoker Farmington, NM for Appellee



         {1} The State appeals from the district court's order granting Defendant Larry Byrom's motion to suppress evidence discovered in Defendant's vehicle during a warrantless search by a police officer. The district court suppressed the evidence on the ground that the community caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement of the United States and the New Mexico Constitution was not applicable because (1) Defendant was not arrested before the officer decided to impound and inventory Defendant's vehicle, and (2) there was no evidence that the parking lot where Defendant's vehicle was located posed particular safety concerns or subjected the vehicle to the risk of theft or vandalism. We reverse the district court's decision to suppress the evidence because the applicability of the community caretaker exception does not depend on the existence of an arrest or on the presentation of evidence specifically showing unsafe conditions or the potential for loss or damage.


         {2} The facts are taken from the testimony at the suppression hearing held on June 11, 2015, unless otherwise noted. New Mexico State Police Sergeant James R. Foreman responded to a call from dispatch on February 2, 2015 around 3:30 p.m. concerning a man "slumped over the steering wheel" of his vehicle in the parking lot of Dino's Mini-Mart in Farmington, New Mexico. The call was an "EMS assist"-when emergency medical services are requested, law enforcement officials often assist for safety purposes. Sergeant Foreman arrived before the medics and found the vehicle properly parked in a parking space in front of the store. Sergeant Foreman approached the vehicle from the driver's side. The window was rolled down, and he observed the driver (Defendant) "slumped over." Sergeant Foreman said he was unable to determine "if he was sleeping, passed out, . . . unconscious." Defendant "was sitting there in an unresponsive state." Sergeant Foreman reached into the vehicle through the window and "shook" Defendant. Defendant then sat up, put his hands to his face, and said "I can't see. My eyes are on fire." Sergeant Foreman said that he was not sure what to do next but that he knew emergency medical services were on the way, so he told Defendant to remain seated and wait for the medics to arrive. Sergeant Foreman then asked Defendant if he had taken narcotics, "because it's standard questioning to find out what type of medical services a person needs when [law enforcement] make[s] contact with them." Defendant answered negatively, and Sergeant Foreman asked to see Defendant's eyes. Sergeant Foreman said that Defendant's eyes were "pin-pointed" and that he "didn't do much 'til the medics got there" in order to "let them do their evaluation."

         {3} Medics arrived a few minutes later, and, according to the district court's findings of fact, "[Sergeant] Foreman decided, in conjunction with the advice of the EMTs on the scene, " that Defendant should be taken to the emergency room. While escorting Defendant from his vehicle to an ambulance, Sergeant Foreman told Defendant, "You go to the ER with the medics. I will take care of your vehicle, then I will meet you at the ER." The district court found that "Defendant can be heard to respond 'Okay' and then say something which is inaudible." Defendant did not instruct Sergeant Foreman about how to care for his vehicle, which turned out to be rented, and Sergeant Foreman noted that Defendant appeared to be alone, without anyone accompanying him. Sergeant Foreman then decided to have the vehicle towed because, according to his testimony, police policy required that he do so. Sergeant Foreman added that he was not allowed to simply lock the car and leave the rented vehicle in the parking lot when no other person was present to take possession of it. He testified that police policies require officers conducting inventory searches of vehicles to complete a tow authorization form listing all items worth more than $25. Sergeant Foreman further testified that the reason he decided to have the vehicle towed was "for the protection of myself and for the person who was responsible for the vehicle ... we do it to protect ourselves from anyone saying that. . . there was $500 in that purse and now there's not."

         {4} Prior to the arrival of the tow truck, Sergeant Foreman inventoried the vehicle and its contents. Sergeant Foreman found a closed backpack in the backseat and, upon opening it, discovered drugs and drug paraphernalia. Defendant was discharged from the hospital later the same day and was then arrested as a result of an arrest warrant based upon the drugs Sergeant Foreman discovered in Defendant's vehicle. (5} Defendant was charged with trafficking a controlled substance, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 30-31-20 (2006), and distribution of marijuana, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 30-31-22(A)(1)(a) (2011). Defendant moved to suppress all of the items seized during the course of Sergeant Foreman's inventory search of Defendant's vehicle, challenging Sergeant Foreman's authority to impound Defendant's vehicle. Defendant argued that an officer has statutory authority to tow a vehicle if: (1) the vehicle was involved in an accident; (2) the vehicle is evidence of a criminal offense; or (3) the vehicle was abandoned on or adjacent to a roadway. Defendant also argued that none of the exceptions to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement applied: Sergeant Foreman did not arrest Defendant, so the search cannot be justified as a search incident to arrest; there existed no exigencies requiring Sergeant Foreman to search the vehicle in order to preserve a life or prevent serious damage to property; Defendant did not consent to the search; and nothing in plain view in the vehicle gave rise to Sergeant Foreman's perceived need to search the vehicle.

         {6} In response to the motion, the State argued that the warrantless search of Defendant's vehicle was reasonable under the community caretaker exception, citing two New Mexico cases-State v. Shaw, 1993-NMCA-016, 115 N.M. 174, 848 P.2d 1101, and State v. Ruffino, 1980-NMSC-072, 94 N.M. 500, 612 P.2d 1311-discussing the impoundment and inventory doctrine of the community caretaker exception. Following the suppression hearing, the district court allowed the parties to submit additional briefs. Defendant's supplemental brief maintained that Sergeant Foreman's decision to impound the vehicle cannot be justified under the community caretaker exception because an officer responding to an emergency assistance call must have a reasonable basis to associate the emergency with the location searched. Once medics removed Defendant from the vehicle, Sergeant Foreman could not possibly have needed to search the vehicle in order to aid in the emergency response. The State's supplemental brief maintained that during each stage of an encounter, an officer's actions must be justified. The initial encounter was "justified by the community caretaking doctrine[, ]" and the justification for the decision to tow and search Defendant's vehicle after Defendant went to the hospital "is based on the inventory exception to the warrant requirement."

         {7} The district court entered a written order granting Defendant's motion to suppress. In the order, the district court stated that Sergeant Foreman did not lawfully acquire custody and control of the vehicle prior to conducting the inventory search. The court noted, "[t]aking custody and control of a person's vehicle is not automatic in all circumstances where the officer is responsible for separating a person from his or her vehicle." The district court concluded that absent an arrest, the inventory search was improper. Furthermore, without evidence showing that leaving the vehicle in the parking lot subjects it to specific safety concerns, "[t]he community caretaking doctrine also does not, in this case, make the warrantless seizure of... Defendant's car lawful under the Fourth Amendment."

         {8} The State timely appealed. The State argues that Sergeant Foreman acted as a community caretaker by responding to the call from dispatch and that his subsequent decision to impound the vehicle was justified by the impoundment and inventory doctrine of the community caretaker exception. Defendant maintains that the emergency aid doctrine of the community caretaker exception applies and does not justify Sergeant Foreman's decision to impound and inventory Defendant's vehicle. We begin with a review of the community caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment and the doctrines it encompasses-the emergency aid doctrine, the impoundment and inventory doctrine, and the public servant doctrine. We detail the differing tests of the two doctrines at issue, determine the doctrine under which the facts of the present case must be analyzed, and apply the appropriate test.


         {9} "Appellate courts review a district court's decision to suppress evidence based on the legality of a search as a mixed question of fact and law." State v. Ryon,2005-NMSC-005, ¶ 11, 137N.M. 174, 108P.3d 1032. "We view the facts in the light most favorable to the prevailing party and defer to the district court's findings of historical facts and witness credibility when supported by substantial evidence." Id. "The legality of a search, however, ultimately turns on the question of reasonableness." Id. "Although our inquiry is necessarily fact-based it compels a careful balancing of constitutional values, which extends beyond fact-finding, to shape the parameters of police conduct by placing the constitutional requirement of reasonableness in factual context[.]" Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "We thus review ...

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