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State v. Vest

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

July 19, 2018

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
SEAN VEST, Defendant-Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF DONA ANA COUNTY Marci E. Beyer, District Judge.

          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Santa Fe, NM M. Victoria Wilson, Assistant Attorney General Albuquerque, NM for Appellee.

          Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender Mary Barket, Assistant Appellate Defender Santa Fe, NM for Appellant.

          OPINION

          VANZI, Chief Judge.

         {¶1} Defendant Sean Vest appeals his conviction for aggravated fleeing a law enforcement officer, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 30-22-1.1 (2003). On appeal, Defendant contends that under his interpretation of the aggravated fleeing statute, the evidence was insufficient to prove that he endangered the life of another person and, therefore, insufficient to support his conviction.[1] Defendant further contends that he was entitled to an instruction on the lesser included misdemeanor offense of resisting, evading, or obstructing an officer, which he did not receive. Because we are persuaded that a conviction under the aggravated fleeing statute requires a finding of actual endangerment and the direct and circumstantial evidence at trial was insufficient to support such a finding, we need not address whether Defendant was entitled to a lesser included instruction. Accordingly, we reverse Defendant's conviction for aggravated fleeing.

         BACKGROUND

         {¶2} On September 19, 2014, shortly before 3:00 a.m., Officer Capraro was patrolling an area of Las Cruces, New Mexico when he saw a Pontiac Vibe parked nearby and observed a man get out of the driver's side of the car. The man spotted Officer Capraro's police cruiser, ran over to it, and told Officer Capraro that someone had threatened him with a knife and forced him out of his vehicle. Officer Capraro engaged his lights and siren and pursued the vehicle. The car sped away, made a right turn, and the officer lost sight of it. Officer Capraro drove over seventy miles per hour in his attempt to catch up with the vehicle. The roads were wet from a recent rain storm. Officer Capraro subsequently found the vehicle crashed and abandoned in a residential area. The car was determined to have gone onto the sidewalk and hit a sign before coming to a stop. Defendant was ultimately apprehended by a police canine unit.

         {¶3} Defendant was indicted on one count of armed robbery and one count of aggravated fleeing a law enforcement officer. After a jury trial, Defendant was acquitted of armed robbery, but convicted of aggravated fleeing, a fourth degree felony. This appeal followed.

         DISCUSSION

         {¶4} Defendant makes two arguments on appeal. First, Defendant contends that the evidence was not sufficient to sustain his conviction for aggravated fleeing because the State failed to establish that he drove in a manner that endangered the life of any individual. Second, he argues that he was entitled to an instruction on the lesser included misdemeanor offense of resisting, evading, or obstructing an officer. Because we reverse on the first issue, we need not reach Defendant's second argument.

         {¶5} In order to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support Defendant's conviction for aggravated fleeing, we must first address the contrasting interpretations of the aggravated fleeing statute presented by the parties. Defendant contends that "[t]he statute and jury instructions in this case required the State to establish that [Defendant] actually endangered the life of another person during the pursuit." Defendant contends that an interpretation other than one that requires actual endangerment "would transform virtually all fleeing into aggravated fleeing" and would "fail to give effect to the statutory language requiring that the fleeing be both careless and' in a manner that endangers the life of another person.'" Conversely, the State argues that the fleeing statute is intended to protect the public from the danger of high speed chases, and a defendant's culpability should be based on the decision to flee "and to do so by driving carelessly and dangerously." The State contends that "the Legislature intended that willful, careless driving 'in a manner that endangers the life of another' means careless driving that could result in harm to another person" and that actual endangerment is not required. According to the State, to interpret the statute as Defendant suggests would be to "assign culpability based on serendipity[, ]" rather than a defendant's conduct and state of mind.

         Principles of Statutory Construction

         {¶6} Our goal when interpreting statutes is to ascertain and effectuate legislative intent. Baker v. Hedstrom, 2013-NMSC-043, ¶ 11, 309 P.3d 1047. We first look to the statute's plain language, which is "the primary indicator of legislative intent." State v. Young, 2004-NMSC-015, ¶ 5, 135 N.M. 458, 90 P.3d 477 (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. Wilson, 2010-NMCA-018, ¶ 9, 147 N.M. 706, 228 P.3d 490 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Appellate courts "will not read into a statute any words that are not there, particularly when the statute is complete and makes sense as written." State v. Trujillo, 2009-NMSC-012, ¶ 11, 146 N.M. 14, 206 P.3d 125. To ensure that our application of the plain meaning rule indicates the true legislative intent, we may look to the history and purpose of the statute to aid our statutory construction analysis. See State v. Rivera, 2004-NMSC-001, ¶ 13, 134N.M. 768, 82 P.3d 939 ("In performing our task of statutory interpretation, not only do we look to the language of the statute at hand, we also consider the history and background of the statute."). In doing so, we examine the language in the context of the statutory scheme, legislative objectives, and other statutes in pari materia in order to determine legislative intent. See State v. Cleve, 1999-NMSC-017, ¶ 8, 127 N.M. 240, 980 P.2d 23. "Finally, while we would be exceeding the bounds of our role as an appellate court by second-guessing the clear policy of the Legislature, when the statute is ambiguous, we may nonetheless consider the policy implications of the various constructions of the statute." Rivera, 2004-NMSC-001, ¶ 14 (citation omitted).

         The Aggravated ...


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