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State v. Yazzie

Supreme Court of New Mexico

January 24, 2019

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Petitioner,
NATHANIEL YAZZIE, Defendant-Respondent.

          ORIGINAL PROCEEDING ON CERTIORARI Karen L. Townsend, District Judge

          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Marko David Hananel, Assistant Attorney General Santa Fe, NM for Petitioner

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




         {¶1} With this opinion we revisit the circumstances under which an officer may make a warrantless entry into a home under the emergency assistance doctrine.[1]Relying on cases interpreting the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, this Court held in Ryon that a warrantless entry is reasonable under the emergency assistance doctrine when (1) law enforcement officers "have reasonable grounds to believe that there is an emergency at hand and an immediate need for assistance for the protection of life or property;" (2) the officers' primary motivation for the search is a "strong sense of emergency" and not "to arrest a suspect or to seize evidence[;]" and (3) the officers have some reasonable basis, approximating probable cause, to connect the emergency to the area to be searched. See 2005-NMSC-005, ¶ 39.

         {¶2} Since Ryon was decided, the United States Supreme Court has clarified that the emergency assistance doctrine under the Fourth Amendment focuses on the objective reasonableness of the officer's actions and does not include a subjective component. See Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 404 (2006) ("The officer's subjective motivation is irrelevant."). Applying the interstitial approach, we hold that an officer's subjective motivation remains relevant to the reasonableness of a warrantless entry under Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution. We further hold that the officer's warrantless entry in this case was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and Article II, Section 10. The Court of Appeals having concluded otherwise, we reverse. In doing so, we reiterate our recent holding in State v. Martinez that the presence of video evidence in an appellate record does not affect the deference due to a district court's factual findings at a suppression hearing if those findings are supported by substantial evidence. See 2018-NMSC-007, ¶¶ 18-19, 410 P.3d 186.


         {¶3} Defendant Nathaniel Yazzie entered a conditional plea of no contest to the offense of attempt to commit negligent child abuse following the district court's denial of his motion to suppress. Defendant had moved to suppress all of the evidence gathered after Officer William Temples of the Farmington Police Department entered his unlocked apartment without a warrant in response to a welfare check. Defendant argued in his suppression motion that Officer Temples' entry violated his right to privacy in his home under the Fourth Amendment and Article II, Section 10. The State responded that Officer Temples' entry was reasonable to ensure the safety of those inside the apartment, thereby making his actions constitutionally permissible under the emergency assistance doctrine.

         {¶4} The district court held a hearing where it considered the officer's testimony as well as the lapel video from the night of the incident. The video was not played during the hearing, but the district court reviewed it prior to issuing its letter decision denying the motion to suppress. The letter decision did not include formal, enumerated findings of fact. On review, we will "draw from the record to derive findings based on reasonable facts and inferences." State v. Attaway, 1994-NMSC-011, ¶ 33, 117 N.M. 141, 870 P.2d 103. The record provides the following facts.

         {¶5} Officer Temples was dispatched to Defendant's residence to conduct a welfare check at 9:43 p.m. on December 5, 2013 after Defendant's downstairs neighbor had reported a loud "thumping" sound coming from the apartment above. Officer Temples testified that no one answered Defendant's door after he loudly knocked and announced himself as a police officer over the course of eight to ten minutes. He told the district court that during that time, the only response to his knocking was an infant crying continuously and a young child "hollering, 'Mommy! Mommy, wake up!'" Officer Temples described the infant's cry as "a constant cry as if there was nobody caring for the child." He further testified that the doorknob rattled as though someone was trying, but unable, to open the door from the inside.

         {¶6} Officer Temples explained at the hearing that these observations led him to believe that someone in the apartment was hurt or otherwise incapacitated, leaving the children unattended. He said he thought the children's mother may have required aid because "usually when a child . . . asks their mommy to wake up several times, usually Mommy wakes up when she's sober or uninjured." Officer Temples testified that he opened the unlocked apartment door to peer inside once he concluded that his assistance was required within. When he did, he observed Defendant and an adult woman lying on the floor of the apartment with two children under six and an infant in the same room.

         {¶7} The lapel video shows Officer Temples knocking six times in the span of roughly six minutes before opening the unlocked apartment door. After his first knock, movement can be heard within, the doorknob rattles, and a child can be heard calling to his or her mother. Moments later, an infant begins to fuss. Officer Temples knocks a second time and someone again rattles the doorknob but gives no additional response. After his fifth unanswered knock, Officer Temples announces that he is an officer of the Farmington Police Department and requests that someone come to the door. The fussing baby is heard again, but no one responds to his request. Officer Temples then says to himself, "Mom and Dad are obviously passed out." At this point in the video, the baby's crying increases in volume and tempo. A minute later Officer Temples knocks a sixth time and announces himself again. When he does not receive a response, Officer Temples opens the unlocked door of the apartment. He knocks a seventh time while standing in the doorway. About one minute later, Officer Temples calls for a backup officer and a portable breath test unit (PBT). He then fully enters the apartment, approximately eight minutes after his first knock.

         {¶8} Officer Temples testified that once inside the apartment he performed a sweep of the adjoining rooms of the apartment to ensure officer safety, as well as to see if any other individuals in the apartment required assistance. During the sweep, Officer Temples observed empty alcohol bottles in the kitchen at the top of an open trash can.

         {¶9} In the lapel video, Officer Temples performs a thirty-second sweep of the apartment, shining his flashlight into each of the rooms, including the kitchen. The lapel video shows that after the requested backup officer arrives, the pair of officers physically rouse the adults, question them, and administer the breath tests. They do not call for a medical response unit. Based on the results of the breath tests, they arrest both adults. This sequence of events is reflected in Officer Temples' arrest report. Defendant was later charged with negligent child abuse contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 30-6-1(D) (2009).

         {¶10} In denying Defendant's motion to suppress, the district court concluded that the entry was justified under either the community caretaking or emergency assistance doctrines, citing Ryon. The district court explained that the entry was permissible because Officer Temples based his decision to enter on "what he was told and what he heard and observed at the apartment," which gave him "a reasonable concern that a medical emergency existed warranting immediate entry." The district court also concluded that the safety sweep was appropriate because "[i]t was a very brief inspection and was supported by what the officer observed upon entering the residence." Finally, the district court found that Officer Temples' "primary motivation was not criminal investigation but to render aid or protection from harm."

         {¶11} Following the denial of his motion to suppress, Defendant pleaded no contest to the lesser offense of attempt to commit negligent child abuse, a fourth-degree felony in violation of Section 30-6-1(D). He entered a conditional plea, reserving his right to appeal the denial of the suppression motion.

         {¶12} The Court of Appeals reversed the district court's denial of the motion to suppress. State v. Yazzie, No. 34, 537, mem. op. ¶ 2 (N.M. Ct. App. May 11, 2017) (non-precedential). The State petitioned for certiorari to review the issue of whether Officer Temples' entry and subsequent inspection were lawful under the emergency assistance doctrine. See N.M. Const. art. VI, § 2; NMSA 1978, § 34-5-14(B) (1972); Rule 12-502 NMRA. We granted certiorari and reverse.


         {¶13} "Appellate review of a motion to suppress presents a mixed question of law and fact. First, we look for substantial evidence to support the [district] court's factual finding, with deference to the district court's review of the testimony and other evidence presented." Martinez, 2018-NMSC-007, ¶ 8 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). "Substantial evidence is relevant evidence that a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." In re Anhayla H., 2018-NMSC-033, ¶ 36, 421 P.3d 814 (quoting State ex rel. Children, Youth & Families Dep't v. Patricia H., 2002-NMCA-061, ¶ 22, 132 N.M. 299, 47 P.3d 859). Contested facts are reviewed "in a manner most favorable to the prevailing party." State v. Rowell, 2008-NMSC-041, ¶ 8, 144 N.M. 371, 188 P.3d 95. "We then review the application of the law to those facts, making a de novo determination of the constitutional reasonableness of the search or seizure." Martinez, 2018-NMSC-007, ¶ 8 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "Although our inquiry is necessarily fact-based it compels a careful balancing of constitutional values, which extends beyond fact-finding, to shape the parameters of police conduct by placing the constitutional requirement of reasonableness in factual context." Ryon, 2005-NMSC-005, ¶ 11 (omission omitted) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         {¶14} After the Court of Appeals decided Yazzie, we reaffirmed in Martinez that appellate courts must afford a high degree of deference to the district court's factual findings if supported by substantial evidence. 2018-NMSC-007, ¶¶ 3, 15. In particular, an appellate court must presume that the district court credited an officer's testimony, even if that testimony is not perfectly aligned with video evidence. See id. When video evidence conflicts with other evidence, an appellate court ...

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