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State v. Simpson

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

January 22, 2019

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellee,
JENNIFER SIMPSON, Defendant-Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF SAN JUAN COUNTY Karen L. Townsend, District Judge

          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Marko D. Hananel, Assistant Attorney General Santa Fe, NM for Appellee

          Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender Tania Shahani, Assistant Appellate Defender Santa Fe, NM for Appellant



         {¶1} Defendant Jennifer Simpson appeals from the district court's denial of her motion to suppress evidence that she contends was obtained as the result of an illegal seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution. Following a hearing resulting in the denial of her suppression motion, Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea to driving while intoxicated (DWI) and driving on a revoked license, reserving her right to appeal the denial of her motion. Defendant contends that she was seized without reasonable suspicion when she stopped her moving vehicle in response to a police officer's tap on the vehicle's window and that the evidence discovered as a result of her illegal detention must be suppressed. We determine that the police officer's initial contact with Defendant was consensual. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's denial of Defendant's suppression motion.


         {¶2} On June 17, 2015, in Farmington, New Mexico, Mark Kennedy, a park ranger and animal control officer, was going about his evening duties at a city park complex. At around 11:00 p.m., he noticed a car drive into a nearby parking lot. The parking lot was park property, partially paved, and poorly lit. The driver of the car- later identified as Defendant-parked and turned off her lights. Officer Kennedy found this suspicious because, while not posted as such, the park's official closing time was 10:00 p.m. He reported the suspicious vehicle to dispatch. Farmington Police Officer Nick Adegite arrived in uniform and in a marked patrol car at approximately 11:20 p.m. to investigate Officer Kennedy's suspicious vehicle report. He entered the parking lot and parked near Defendant's stationary vehicle. Officer Adegite at no time engaged his vehicle's emergency lights.

         {¶3} As Officer Adegite approached Defendant's vehicle on foot, Defendant turned on her lights and started to drive away. Officer Adegite then reached out and tapped on the window of Defendant's moving vehicle. Defendant stopped and rolled down her window. Officer Adegite quickly detected the strong odor of alcohol, which led to a DWI investigation and Defendant's eventual arrest. Ultimately, Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving the right to appeal the district court's denial of her motion to suppress.


         {¶4} On appeal, Defendant argues that she was illegally seized when she stopped her vehicle to comply with Officer Adegite's signal to stop because the police officer lacked sufficient reasonable suspicion to make an investigatory stop. For the reasons that follow, we hold that Officer Adegite's tap on Defendant's car window, without more, constituted only a consensual encounter between the officer and Defendant. Therefore, there was no seizure at the time Defendant rolled down her window and Officer Adegite observed a strong odor of alcohol emanating from inside the vehicle.

         I. Standard of Review

         {¶5} In reviewing a district court's ruling denying a motion to suppress, this Court draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the ruling and defers to the district court's findings of fact as long as they are supported by substantial evidence. State v. Jason L., 2000-NMSC-018, ¶¶ 10-11, 129 N.M. 119, 2 P.3d 856. If the district court does not state on the record a disbelief of uncontradicted testimony, we "presume the court believed all uncontradicted evidence." Id. ¶ 11. "When a seizure occurred and whether it was based on reasonable suspicion are mixed questions of fact and law because they involve the mixture of facts and evaluative judgments." State v. Eric K., 2010-NMCA-040, ¶ 14, 148 N.M. 469, 237 P.3d 771. We evaluate mixed questions de novo. Id.

         II. The Initial Encounter Was Consensual and Did Not Constitute a Seizure

         {¶6} Investigatory detentions and arrests are considered seizures for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Jason L.,2000-NMSC-018, ΒΆ 14. While both the State and Defendant acknowledge that Defendant was seized by Officer Adegite at some point during the encounter, they disagree as to when exactly the seizure occurred. Defendant contends that she was seized when she stopped her vehicle in response to Officer Adegite's tap on her window. The State argues that Defendant was not seized until sometime after Officer Adegite observed signs of intoxication, with all prior events being consensual in nature. "The point at which the seizure occurs is pivotal ...

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