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State v. Ruffin

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

October 22, 2018

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellant,
EMILY A. RUFFIN, Defendant-Appellee.

          APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF BERNALILLO COUNTY Jacqueline D. Flores, District Judge

          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Santa Fe, NM Laurie B levins, Assistant Attorney General Albuquerque, NM for Appellant

          Dan Cron Law Firm, P.C. Kitren Fischer Dan Cron Santa Fe, NM for Appellee



         {¶1} The State appeals the district court's pretrial ruling prohibiting one of its witnesses from testifying as an expert. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         {¶2} At approximately 7:30 p.m. on October 18, 2013, Deputy Leonard Armijo responded to a report of a two-vehicle accident involving a Ford Bronco and Toyota 4Runner. Upon arriving at the scene, Deputy Armijo observed a Ford Bronco lying on its side with a deceased individual inside. Defendant Emily A. Ruffin was standing in front of the Ford Bronco and told Deputy Armijo she was the driver of the Toyota 4Runner. She was in a hurry to pick up a friend from the airport when her phone rang and fell to the floor. When she looked at the floor, the Ford Bronco "swerved and cut in front of her, which had caused the crash." Deputy Armijo detected an odor of alcohol while talking with Defendant, prompting him to call a DWI unit to his location. Deputy Johan Jareno responded and after investigating Defendant for DWI, placed her under arrest. Defendant was charged, inter alia, with homicide by vehicle and driving while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs.

         {¶3} A week before trial was scheduled, the State, for the first time, notified the district court and defense counsel that it intended to qualify Deputy Armijo as an expert witness in, as the State later clarified, "crash investigations." The district court neither ruled on the admissibility of Deputy Armijo's proposed expert testimony, nor accepted Deputy Armijo as an expert witness under Rule 11-702 NMRA (providing the requirements for a witness to be qualified and give an opinion as an expert).

         {¶4} Four days before trial was scheduled, Defendant filed a motion in limine, seeking to prohibit Deputy Armijo from testifying as an expert witness on the issue of causation and in regard to accident reconstruction, and to limit his testimony to only his personal observations during his investigation of the accident scene. During the hearing on Defendant's motion, held the day before trial was scheduled, Defendant also argued that Deputy Armijo's proposed expert testimony should also be excluded under Rule 11-403 NMRA because it bore "a legitimate risk of misleading the jury."

         {¶5} During the hearing, Deputy Armijo testified that for approximately eight years he had been assigned to the DWI Traffic Unit of the Bernalillo County Sheriffs Department. In conjunction with his assignment, he attended a 240-hour, three-phase training course in crash investigations and reconstruction. As part of the first phase of training-"at-scene crash investigations"-Deputy Armijo learned how to respond to crash investigations, assist at and protect the scene, and observe points of impact, "skid marks," "yaw marks," "other debris deposited on the asphalt," and vehicles at their "final rest." During the second phase of training-"advanced at-scene crash"-he learned "airborne equations, what vehicles would become airborne[, ] . .. speed analysis, crash analysis, [and] what causes vehicles to change directions." Deputy Armijo testified that to conduct a speed analysis, "[y]ou have to ascertain what's called the coefficient of friction or what is commonly referred to as the drag factor of the roadway[, ]" which is determined by using a mathematical equation. During the third and final phase of training-"crash reconstruction"-Deputy Armijo learned how to reconstruct a crash, which involves observing the scene, looking at the crash damage, looking at the position of the vehicles, and looking for "any road evidence to include skid marks, [and] vehicle debris[.]" He testified this "teaches you where to locate the area of impact, where the crash occurred, how it occurred, and how the vehicles sustained the damage that they've sustained."

         {¶6} Deputy Armijo explained that while a sergeant can override his recommendation as to whether a full accident reconstruction should be conducted, he only conducts such a reconstruction when there are no independent witnesses, he has no corroborating statements from the drivers, and/or the evidence does not match with what he observes at the scene of the accident. Deputy Armijo testified that, without conducting a full reconstruction of a given accident, he is only able to form an opinion regarding:

[H]ow the vehicles came together. What contacted. What is on each of the vehicles. There's specific damage to each of the vehicles that the vehicles will sustain during the contact of the vehicles. It's basically like a jigsaw puzzle. You can put those two vehicles together. As long as the damage matches up to what the evidence shows, reconstruction wouldn't be necessary.

         Deputy Armijo testified that he had investigated over five thousand crashes-three hundred eighty-seven of which involved great bodily injury or fatality-and performed full accident reconstructions in only eleven cases. During ensuing court proceedings, he had been qualified as an expert in "crash investigations" on four prior occasions, and in "crash reconstruction" on six occasions.

         {¶7} In this case, Deputy Armijo decided not to conduct a full accident reconstruction "because what I was looking at, it was quite obvious, it was quite a simple crash." Deputy Armijo observed "specific damage" to the Ford Bronco's red tail light lens, as well as to the clear head light lens of Defendant's vehicle. He then . "walked" the scene of the accident and located pieces of the vehicles' red and clear lenses deposited on the road approximately seven or eight hundred feet from the vehicles' resting points, which helped him locate the apparent point of impact. Although he did not see any "braking marks on either vehicle[, ]" Deputy Armijo observed yaw marks, which he stated are consistent with a vehicle sliding sideways, and gouge marks, which he explained indicate a vehicle's roof and/or metal making contact with the road.

         {¶8} While discussing the Ford Bronco, Deputy Armijo stated it was "fairly obvious" that it had rolled over. When asked what starts a rollover, Deputy Armijo stated:

The stability of that vehicle has been compromised by another vehicle coming into contact with it. Once that vehicle has gone into the yaw marks sliding sideways, it's inevitable that vehicle is going to roll over due to the fact that the make and model of that vehicle, the speeds, and once the ...

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