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State v. Martinez

Supreme Court of New Mexico

January 4, 2018

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Petitioner,
v.
JENNIFER MARTINEZ, Defendant-Respondent.

         ORIGINAL PROCEEDING ON CERTIORARI Karen L. Townsend, District Judge

          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Martha Anne Kelly, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth H. Stalter, Assistant Attorney General Steven H. Johnston, Assistant Attorney General Santa Fe, NM for Petitioner

          Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender C. David Henderson, Appellate Defender Santa Fe, NM for Respondent

          OPINION

          BARBARA J. VIGIL, Justice

         {1} Our resolution of this appeal turns on the standard of review that applies to a district court's findings of fact concerning a motion to suppress evidence. Specifically, we defer to the district court's findings if supported by substantial evidence. See State v. Jason L., 2000-NMSC-018, ¶ 10, 129 N.M. 119, 2 P.3d 856.

         {2} Bloomfield Police Sergeant George Rascon pulled over Defendant Jennifer Martinez for failing to stop at a stop sign and, as a result, the police obtained evidence that led to Defendant's arrest and conviction for driving while intoxicated. In a motion to suppress evidence, Defendant argued that the video from the officer's onboard camera, or "dash-cam, " demonstrated that Defendant made a legal stop at the intersection and that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to pull her over. At an evidentiary hearing, the officer testified that Defendant went past the stop sign before coming to a complete stop, blocking the intersection. The district court viewed the dash-cam video and concluded that the officer had reasonable suspicion to conduct the traffic stop, even though the video demonstrated that the alleged traffic violation was not as blatant as described by the officer.

         {3} The Court of Appeals reversed, reasoning that the officer was not credible and that the video evidence was too ambiguous to support a finding of reasonable suspicion. State v. Martinez, 2015-NMCA-051, ¶ 1, 348 P.3d 1022, cert. granted, 2015-NMCERT-005. We hold that the Court of Appeals misapplied the standard of review, which requires the appellate court to defer to the district court's findings of fact if supported by substantial evidence and to view the facts in the light most favorable to the prevailing party.

         I. BACKGROUND

         {4} Defendant was charged in magistrate court with driving while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs (second offense), see NMSA 1978, § 66-8-102 (2008, amended 2016); consumption of an alcoholic beverage in a motor vehicle, see NMSA 1978, § 66-8-138(A) (2001, amended 2013); and failure to stop at a stop sign, see NMSA 1978, § 66-7-345(C) (2003). Defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence, arguing that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop. The magistrate court denied the motion to suppress. Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea to driving while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs, reserving her right to appeal the suppression issue. See State v. Celusniak, 2004-NMCA-070, ¶ 10, 135 N.M. 728, 93 P.3d 10 (recognizing that a defendant in magistrate court "may enter a conditional plea of guilty or no contest, reserving one or more issues for appeal").

         {5} Defendant appealed de novo to the district court and renewed her motion to suppress. See N.M. Const. art. VI, § 27 (providing for de novo appeal to district court). The State's evidence at the suppression hearing consisted of Sergeant George Rascon's testimony and the dash-cam video. The officer testified that on November 11, 2008, at about 10:00 p.m., he was patrolling a residential neighborhood in Bloomfield when he saw a vehicle approaching the four-way intersection of Sycamore and North Third at a "high rate of speed." The officer testified that when Defendant reached the intersection, she went past the stop sign before coming to a complete stop, blocking the southbound lane of traffic. The officer activated his emergency lights and pulled Defendant over for failing to stop at the stop sign.

         {6} After hearing the officer's testimony and watching the dash-cam video, the district court denied Defendant's motion to suppress. The district court judge explained her ruling as follows:

[A]fter hearing Sergeant Rascon's testimony I was certainly confused as to why [Defendant] would file a motion to suppress because he made it sound very clear why . . . he stopped and that there was reasonable suspicion. But I think it just goes to show you really need to review the video in every case. And in this case, after reviewing the video, I truly find the truth somewhere in between both positions. I certainly didn't see Sergeant Rascon's testimony that . . . she stopped in the middle of the intersection; I don't think that was the case. However, I do think she . . . seemed to be going quickly, she seemed to have slammed on her brakes, and she seems to have slammed on her brakes further into the intersection than I think is allowable, creating the reasonable suspicion for Sergeant Rascon to . . . stop [Defendant]. So therefore I will deny Defendant's motion to suppress, although I will grant that it was certainly a closer call than I thought it was going to be at first. But I still think Sergeant Rascon did have reasonable suspicion to stop her.

         {7} The Court of Appeals reversed. Martinez, 2015-NMCA-051. The Court of Appeals inferred from the judge's remarks that "the district court found that the officer was not credible." Id. ¶ 12. The Court of Appeals concluded that "the district court was left with no facts other than the video on which to conclude that the stop was supported by a reasonable suspicion." Id. The Court of Appeals then conducted an independent review of the dash-cam video and found that the video evidence was too ambiguous by itself to support a finding of reasonable suspicion. Id. ¶¶ 13-14. We granted certiorari under Article VI, Section 2 of the New Mexico Constitution and NMSA 1978, Section 34-5-14(B) (1972), to consider whether the Court of Appeals erred by failing to view the facts in the manner most favorable to the prevailing party.

         II.DISCUS ...


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