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State v. Chacon

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

August 6, 2018

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellee,
EUGENE CHACON, Defendant-Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF SANTA FE COUNTY Sheri A. Raphaelson, District Judge.

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

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


          VIGIL, Judge.

         {¶1} This case involves the constitutionality of a second strip search of Defendant Eugene Chacon in which correctional officials at the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility (SFCADF) discovered heroin on Defendant's person. We are required, as a matter of first impression, to determine the appropriate standard required to perform a second strip search of an inmate who has had no contact with anyone outside of the jail. We hold that such a search requires reasonable suspicion and that the strip search of Defendant was supported by reasonable suspicion. We therefore affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         {¶2} On the evening of June 5, 2013, Defendant was booked into SFCADF on charges that included trafficking a controlled substance. It is the facility's policy to perform a "visual examination of an individual's naked body for weapons, drugs or other contraband[, ]" which we herein refer to as a "strip search," on all individuals arrested for certain charges, including drug trafficking charges. Pursuant to the policy, Defendant was strip searched during the booking process. Two officers took Defendant into the restroom where Defendant was required to remove his clothing one item, at a time, lean over, and cough. During this search, the officers found a blue rubber glove, but the record does not indicate where the officers found the glove. Defendant was then taken to a booking intake cell, where he was kept until the next day.

         {¶3} The following morning, June 6, 2013, Defendant was sent to an "orientation pod" called the Alpha 300 Pod, where he was to be kept until classified to an appropriate housing unit according to his status (i.e., threat level). The Alpha 300 Pod is a two-tiered unit with a large common room on the bottom floor. One wall of the pod has two floors of cells, with six cells on each floor. The odd numbered cells (301 through 311) are situated on the bottom floor, while the even numbered cells (302 through 312) are on the top floor. The cells all have doors with a narrow window running vertically in the middle of the door.

         {¶4} On the morning of June 7, 2013, Lieutenant Charlie Valdez, a shift commander at SFCADF, received an anonymous tip that several inmates in the Alpha 300 Pod had drug paraphernalia. Between 7:12 a.m. and 8:48 a.m., several, inmates in the Alpha 300 Pod were moving from their cells to the common area and to other inmates' cells, including 301, 303, 305, 307, and 311, where they would remain for a brief period of time. They would then briefly return to their own cells before repeating this process. On several occasions, an inmate from cell 301-the cell in which Defendant and another inmate were held--appeared to go inside cells 303 and 307, stay inside for a while, return to his room, and go back into one of those rooms, Officer Joseph Cross, the floor officer, noticed this activity and deemed it unusual and suspicious, {¶5} The inmates' behavior combined with the anonymous tip prompted the correctional officers to enter the pod and direct the inmates to line up against a. wall in the common area, Officer Cross entered cell 3 03 and discovered its two occupants, neither of whom were Defendant, to be in possession of drugs. Major Nelson Abeyta, the chief of security, noticed Officer Cross escorting inmates and entered the Alpha 300 Pod to assist him. Officer Cross informed Major Abeyta of what had just happened, and identified to Major Abeyta the inmates who were engaging in the unusual and suspicious behavior were in the area of cell 303 and should therefore be strip searched.

         {¶6} Defendant was one of the inmates Officer Cross identified. Major Abeyta took Defendant into a mop closet for privacy and directed him to remove his clothes, lift his arms and tongue, lean over, hold his testicles, squat, spread, his buttocks, and cough. When Defendant squatted and coughed, Major Abeyta spotted a string from Defendant's anal cavity. Maj or Abeyta told Defendant to either "give up" what he had or be sent to a dry cell (i.e., a cell with either no plumbing fixtures or plumbing fixtures that can be turned off. Defendant was compliant and pulled a "black tar[-]like rock" wrapped in plastic from his anal cavity and gave it to Major Abeyta. Testing confirmed that the plastic contained, heroin.

         {¶7} Charged with possession of a controlled substance (heroin), Defendant filed a motion to suppress the heroin seized from his body, asserting that the search violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article II Section 4 of the New Mexico Constitution. Following an evidentiary hearing in which the foregoing facts were presented, the district court denied Defendant's motion. The district court ruled that reasonable suspicion was the standard under which the constitutionality of the search was to be measured and concluded that the evidence demonstrated that the search was supported, by reasonable suspicion. Following a jury trial, Defendant was found guilty and appeals.

         II. discussion

         {¶8} Defendant does not contend that the first strip search was unconstitutional See Florerice v. Bel of Chosen Freeholders, 566 U.S. 318, 322-23 (2012) (upholding the constitutionality of a jail's policy requiring a strip search of every arrestee upon his/her admission to the jail).

         {¶9} Defendant does, however, argue that the second strip search of his person was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution, This argument requires us to first determine the standard for deciding the constitutional reasonableness of the strip search of a pretrial detainee who was strip searched upon hooking, has remained in the sealed correctional facility environment without any contact external to the correctional ...

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