State v. Almanzar

Decision Date02 December 2013
Docket NumberNo. 33,763.,33,763.
Citation316 P.3d 183
PartiesSTATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff–Petitioner, v. Daniel ALMANZAR, Defendant–Respondent.
CourtNew Mexico Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Gary K. King, Attorney General, Nicole Beder, Assistant Attorney General, Santa Fe, NM, for Petitioner.

Jorge A. Alvarado, Chief Public Defender, Nina Lalevic, Assistant Appellate Defender, Santa Fe, NM, for Respondent.

OPINION

VIGIL, Justice.

{1} In this case we address whether the phrase “at the scene” in NMSA 1978, Section 31–1–7(A) (1995) authorizes law enforcement officers to make a warrantless arrest for domestic violence beyond the precise geographic location where the disturbance occurred. In this case, Daniel Almanzar (Defendant) was arrested without a warrant across the street from where he allegedly battered his girlfriend (“Victim”). When the police searched Defendant pursuant to his arrest, they found a golf-ball-sized mass of cocaine in his pants pocket. He was subsequently charged with a drug trafficking offense. Defendant moved to suppress the cocaine on the basis that the arrest was unlawful because he was not arrested “at the scene” as required under Section 31–1–7(A). The district court denied his motion, concluding that the warrantless arrest was lawful because Defendant was arrested in close proximity to where the actual incident took place.

{2} The Court of Appeals reversed the district court and held that the warrantless arrest was not lawfully made because Section 31–1–7(A) specifically limits the authority of law enforcement officers to make an arrest for domestic battery, a misdemeanor, where the incident took place. We disagree with this analysis. Our interpretation of the Legislature's intent in creating the statutory warrantless arrest exception in Section 31–1–7(A) leads us to conclude that Defendant's arrest was lawful because it was reasonably close in proximity to where the domestic violence took place.

I. BACKGROUND

{3} On December 1, 2007, Defendant and Victim were in the parking lot at Tingley Coliseum on the New Mexico State Fair grounds in Albuquerque. Defendant and Victim began quarreling, and he allegedly kicked Victim. After the incident, Victim left the fairgrounds and walked to a Walgreens drug store across the street on the corner of Central Avenue and San Pedro Drive, where she called 911. Defendant also left the fairgrounds, but he walked to a Circle K convenience store across the street on the corner of Central Avenue and Louisiana Boulevard. The Albuquerque Police Department dispatched officers to both locations in response to the 911 call.

{4} The officers identified Defendant when they arrived at the Circle K. As the officers approached Defendant, he put his hands in his pockets and refused to remove them after being asked to do so. The officers escorted Defendant out of the store, handcuffed him, and performed a pat-down search. The officer who performed the search felt a hard object in Defendant's pocket and removed a golf-ball-sized mass of cocaine. The officers then put Defendant in the back of a squad car and drove him to the Walgreens where Victim was located.

{5} When they arrived at Walgreens, Victim identified Defendant as the person who had battered her. Once Victim identified Defendant, one of the arresting officers made the initial determination that Defendant would be charged with domestic violence and taken in for booking. However, Defendant was not charged with the domestic violence offense, but instead was charged with and indicted on one count of trafficking a controlled substance in contravention of NMSA 1978, Section 30–31–20 (2006).

{6} Before trial, Defendant moved to suppress the cocaine evidence. He argued that the search amounted to an illegal pat-down and that it was unlawful because, pursuant to Section 31–1–7(A), the police had no authority to arrest him away from where the incident took place without a warrant. The district court denied Defendant's motion to suppress the physical evidence, concluding that the pat-down was lawful and that the arrest was lawful because “it was in the general vicinity, certainly in [the] area,” of the scene.

{7} The Court of Appeals reversed the district court on both grounds. State v. Almanzar, 2012–NMCA–111, ¶ 1, 288 P.3d 238. First, it held that the officer who performed the pat-down exceed his authority by removing the cocaine from Defendant's pocket because the cocaine did not appear to be a weapon. Id. Second, the Court of Appeals held that Defendant's arrest was unlawful because the officers did not make the arrest at the precise location of the alleged battery. Id. Accordingly, it held that the cocaine should have been suppressed. Id.

{8} The State now asks this Court to address the lawfulness of Defendant's arrest and reverse the Court of Appeals on this single issue. It argues that the “at the scene” language in Section 31–1–7(A) was satisfied because the arrest was made within minutes of the alleged battery, and the arrest was made across the street from the reported incident. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the warrantless arrest was lawful. Therefore, we reverse the Court of Appeals and affirm the district court's denial of Defendant's motion to suppress.

II. DISCUSSIONA. Standard of Review

{9} The district court's denial of Defendant's motion to suppress evidence presents a mixed question of fact and law. See State v. Williams, 2011–NMSC–026, ¶ 8, 149 N.M. 729, 255 P.3d 307. This Court reviews factual matters with deference to the district court's findings if substantial evidence exists to support them, and it reviews the district court's application of the law de novo. Id. Further, since Defendant's appeal centers on our interpretation of Section 31–1–7(A), this Court interprets that statute de novo. See Moongate Water Co. v. City of Las Cruces, 2013–NMSC–018, ¶ 6, 302 P.3d 405 (“Statutory interpretation is an issue of law that we review de novo.”).

B. The Warrantless Arrest Was Lawful Under Section 31–1–7(A) Because It Was Made in Close Proximity to Where the Incident Took Place

{10} The central issue is whether Defendant was lawfully arrested without a warrant for domestic violence when the arrest took place across the street from where the alleged incident occurred. If Defendant's arrest was lawful, then the search incident to the arrest falls within the exception to the constitutional search warrant requirement. SeeN.M. Const. art. II, § 10 (The people shall be secure in their persons, papers, homes and effects, from unreasonable searches and seizures.”); U.S. Const. amend. IV (“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”); State v. Rowell, 2008–NMSC–041, ¶ 13, 144 N.M. 371, 188 P.3d 95 (“One of the most firmly established exceptions to the warrant requirement is “the right on the part of the government, always recognized under English and American law, to search the person of the accused when legally arrested.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). We hold that because Defendant's warrantless arrest was made within close proximity to the alleged incident, it was lawful under Section 31–1–7(A). Therefore, as the district court ruled, the cocaine was found pursuant to a search incident to a lawful arrest, and Defendant's motion to suppress was properly denied.

{11} We begin our analysis by noting the constitutional limitations on the government's authority to make an arrest without a warrant and search incident thereto. Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution provides that [t]he people shall be secure in their persons, papers, homes and effects, from unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution also provides this guarantee. “Warrantless [searches and] seizures are presumed to be unreasonable.” Williams, 2011–NMSC–026, ¶ 8, 149 N.M. 729, 255 P.3d 307 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). While our state constitution and its federal counterpart impose a warrant requirement to ensure that searches and seizures are reasonable, “our courts have historically recognized that it is not always reasonable to require a warrant and have developed a number of well-established exceptions to the warrant requirement.” Rowell, 2008–NMSC–041, ¶ 11, 144 N.M. 371, 188 P.3d 95. {12} One such exception is “the right on the part of the government, always recognized under English and American law, to search the person of the accused when legally arrested.” Id. ¶ 13 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Warrantless searches “have been considered reasonable because of the practical need to prevent the arrestee from destroying evidence or obtaining access to weapons or instruments of escape, without any requirement of specific probable cause to believe weapons or evidence are present in a particular situation.” Id. Thus, our inquiry is whether Defendant was lawfully arrested so that the officer's search of his person falls within this exception.

{13} In order to lawfully arrest an individual for a misdemeanor, a police officer must have a warrant, unless the misdemeanor was committed in the officer's presence. See City of Las Cruces v. Sanchez, 2009–NMSC–026, ¶ 11, 146 N.M. 315, 210 P.3d 212 ([I]n New Mexico, an officer may execute a warrantless misdemeanor arrest only if the offense was committed in the officer's presence.”). Section 31–1–7(A) creates an exception to this general rule for misdemeanor domestic disturbances, such as the one reported here, by providing that:

Notwithstanding the provisions of any other law to the contrary, a peace officer may arrest a person and take that person into custody without a warrant when the officer is at the scene of a domestic disturbance and has probable cause to believe that the person has committed an assault or a battery upon a household member.

There is no dispute that the...

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