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State v. Wright

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

February 14, 2019

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellant,
SOMER D. WRIGHT, Defendant-Appellee.

          APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TORRANCE COUNTY Matthew G. Reynolds, District Judge

          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Santa Fe, NM Charles J. Gutierrez, Assistant Attorney General Albuquerque, NM for Appellant

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



         {¶1} A reserve deputy sheriffs officer followed Defendant Somer Wright home after seeing her truck driving erratically on the highway. When Defendant arrived home, her truck struck a parked vehicle in the driveway, and then backed up, almost hitting the reserve deputy's vehicle. The reserve deputy approached Defendant's truck and, after she admitted to having drunk four beers, advised her to "hang tight." Defendant sat in her truck until a regular commissioned deputy sheriff arrived four to five minutes later to continue the investigation. Defendant was ultimately charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI).

         {¶2} It is undisputed that the reserve deputy lacked statutory authority under the Motor Vehicle Code to require Defendant to remain in her truck until the commissioned deputy arrived on the scene. It is also undisputed that the reserve deputy's action constituted an arrest under New Mexico law, albeit one that did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The question we must decide is whether the arrest was constitutionally unreasonable under Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution. The district court found that the reserve deputy's action was unconstitutional, and suppressed all evidence obtained by law enforcement after the reserve deputy directed Defendant to "hang tight." The State now appeals.

         {¶3} We conclude that the arrest was constitutionally reasonable, because the State's strong interest in apprehending and prosecuting drunk drivers outweighed the minor intrusion on Defendant's privacy rights. We therefore reverse the district court's suppression order.


         {¶4} On the evening of March 15, 2014, Torrance County Reserve Deputy Roy Thompson was on duty in a marked patrol car belonging to the Torrance County Sheriffs Department. He wore a uniform and badge that identified him as a deputy and were largely indistinguishable from those of a full-time regular deputy. Thompson was traveling down Highway 41 when he was approached from behind by two vehicles. Believing they were exceeding the 55 mile-per-hour posted speed limit, Thompson pulled off the highway to let those vehicles pass. The headlights on one of the vehicles kept moving "back and forth," and as Thompson pulled over, one of the vehicles, a white Dodge truck driven by Defendant, crossed the outer white line and nearly struck Thompson's vehicle. Thompson's radar showed that Defendant's truck was traveling at sixty-eight miles per hour, and Thompson sped up to around eighty miles per hour and passed another vehicle to catch up with Defendant. While traveling behind Defendant, Thompson used his personal cell phone to contact Deputy Ron Fulfer, the only full-time deputy on duty in Torrance County that evening, who instructed Thompson to follow the truck and initiate a stop only if necessary to do so for safety reasons. Thompson also ran the truck's license plate number and obtained Defendant's address. Thompson followed the truck to a private residence matching the vehicle's registered address. When Defendant pulled the truck into her driveway, she struck another vehicle that was already parked there. Defendant backed up after hitting the parked car, and according to Thompson, nearly struck his patrol car[1] as he pulled up behind Defendant's truck and parked on the highway. Though he never activated his emergency lights, Thompson did shine the patrol car's spotlight on the now-stationary truck before approaching Defendant on foot. Defendant remained in the driver's seat of the truck, with the engine running and the lights on.

         {¶5} Thompson identified himself as a reserve deputy, and pointed out to Defendant that she had hit the vehicle in the driveway and nearly hit his patrol car, to which Defendant responded by stating, in substance, that the car in her driveway was hers, and she could hit it if she wanted to. At that point, Thompson smelled the odor of alcohol and asked if Defendant had been drinking. She acknowledged that she had consumed "four green beers," apparently in celebration of the then upcoming St. Patrick's Day holiday. Thompson instructed Defendant to "hang tight" until Deputy Fulfer arrived. Thompson then returned to and sat in his patrol car. Defendant followed Thompson's direction by remaining in her vehicle, and approximately four to five minutes later, Deputy Fulfer arrived, conducted a DWI investigation, and arrested Defendant for DWI. Defendant was ultimately charged with aggravated DWI, contrary to NMSA 1978, § 66-8-102(A), (D)(1) (2010, amended 2016), which carries a penalty of up to ninety days' imprisonment and a fine of not more than $500. See § 66-8-102(E).

         {¶6} Defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained after Deputy Fulfer arrived on the scene, arguing that it was obtained as a result of an unlawful seizure in violation of Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution. The district court granted Defendant's suppression motion following a hearing, concluding that (1) Thompson's "temporary detention" of Defendant constituted an "arrest" within the meaning of NMSA 1978, § 66-8-124(A) (2007) (providing that "[n]o person shall be arrested for violating the Motor Vehicle Code ... or other law relating to motor vehicles punishable as a misdemeanor except by a commissioned, salaried peace officer who, at the time of arrest, is wearing a uniform clearly indicating the peace officer's official status"); (2) Defendant's arrest was not authorized by Section 66-8-124(A) because Thompson was not a commissioned, salaried deputy; and (3) Defendant's arrest, while not violating the Fourth Amendment, did violate Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution. The State now appeals.


         {¶7} "Appellate review of a motion to suppress presents a mixed question of law and fact." State v. Paananen, 2015-NMSC-031, ¶ 10, 357 P.3d 958 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "We review the [district] court's ruling on a defendant's motion to suppress to determine whether the law was correctly applied to the facts, viewing them in the manner most favorable to the prevailing party." State v. Ortiz, 2017-NMCA-062, ¶ 9, 400 P.3d 312 (alteration, internal quotation marks, and citation omitted), cert denied, 2017-NMCERT-___(No. S-1-SC-36492, June 22, 2017). "While we afford de novo review of the [district] court's legal conclusions, we will not disturb the [district] court's factual findings if they are supported by substantial evidence." Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         {¶8} We begin our analysis by setting out several undisputed legal and constitutional precepts that would normally serve as building blocks of an analysis under Article II, Section 10. First, the State concedes that Thompson's actions in temporarily detaining Defendant amounted to an "arrest" as that term is used in Section 66-8-124(A). See State v. Slayton,2009-NMSC-054, ¶ 20, 147 N.M. 340, 223 P.3d 337 (concluding that "temporary detentions are covered under the term 'arrest' as used in Chapter 66 as well as custodial arrests"); State v. Bricker,2006-NMCA-052, ¶ 9, 139 N.M. 513, 134 P.3d 800 (same). The State also agrees, as it must, that Thompson was not a commissioned, salaried peace officer under Section 66-8-124(A) and therefore acted without statutory authority when he temporarily detained Defendant. Neither party disputes that Thompson's temporary detention of Defendant, although statutorily unauthorized, did not violate the Fourth Amendment. See Slayton,2009-NMSC-054, ΒΆΒΆ 30-33 (holding that the defendant's statutorily unauthorized detention by a police service aide did not violate the Fourth Amendment). Finally, there is no dispute that Thompson was acting in his capacity as a reserve deputy on behalf of Torrance County when he began following Defendant's vehicle and that his temporary detention of Defendant ...

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