State v. Chavez

Decision Date23 June 2009
Docket NumberNo. 31,202.,31,202.
Citation2009 NMSC 035,211 P.3d 891
PartiesSTATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Julio CHAVEZ, Defendant-Petitioner.
CourtNew Mexico Supreme Court

Hugh W. Dangler, Chief Public Defender, William A. O'Connell, Assistant Appellate Defender, Santa Fe, NM, for Petitioner.

Gary K. King, Attorney General, Anita Carlson, Assistant Attorney General, Santa Fe, NM, for Respondent.


BOSSON, Justice.

{1} When Defendant Julio Chavez woke up on the morning of October 2, 2003, he discovered that his infant daughter, Shelby, was not breathing. Despite repeated efforts, she could not be revived. A police investigation into her death revealed that Shelby had been placed to sleep in a dresser drawer filled with blankets and padding because her bassinet had broken a day or two earlier. In addition, police inspected Defendant's home and discovered impoverished and dirty living conditions that, in the State's opinion, posed a significant danger to Shelby and her two young brothers, Juan and Leo. As a result, Defendant was charged with two counts of child abuse by endangerment with respect to the two boys based on the living conditions in his home. Defendant was charged with one count of child abuse resulting in death in regard to Shelby, as well as a lesser included charge of child endangerment for Shelby. The jury did not find Defendant guilty of child abuse resulting in death but did find Defendant guilty of all three endangerment charges.

{2} In this appeal, we first explore the sufficiency and nature of the evidence necessary to sustain a child endangerment conviction when it is based only on filthy living conditions and without any underlying criminal conduct. This is not the first time we have confronted this question. We refer to our recent holding in State v. Jensen, 2006-NMSC-045, ¶ 14, 140 N.M. 416, 143 P.3d 178, where we stated that "[w]hen filthy living conditions provide the exclusive basis for charging a defendant with child endangerment, the State must assist the trier of fact with evidence that supports a finding that there is a reasonable probability or possibility that such filthy conditions endangered the child." Although we ultimately upheld the endangerment conviction in Jensen, we based our decision on a number of risk factors, including criminal activity coupled with the conditions in the home. This is the first case in which filthy conditions alone provide the basis for the conviction. We conclude that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support a finding that Defendant's conduct created a substantial and foreseeable risk of harm to the children. Whether a defendant's conduct creates a substantial and foreseeable risk of harm is what determines whether the child was endangered. As we will explain, we no longer find the terms "probability" or "possibility" helpful to our analysis and their use should be discontinued.

{3} In addition, we address whether the sleeping environment for baby Shelby created a substantial and foreseeable risk of harm sufficient to support a criminal child endangerment conviction. For the reasons we discuss in more detail below, the evidence did not establish that the risk of harm was substantial and foreseeable, and therefore, we reverse. The Court of Appeals having decided otherwise, we reverse.


{4} Defendant and Jennifer Wheeler had three children together over the course of their eight-year relationship: Juan and Leo, ages four and two, and Shelby, who was five months old at the time of her death on October 2, 2003. In April 2003, shortly after Shelby was born, the family relocated from Alamogordo to a mobile home in Tularosa. Jennifer worked long hours, leaving Defendant to stay at home with the children.

{5} On October 1 or the day before, Shelby's bassinet broke. Defendant planned to get a crib for Shelby from his mother, but in the meantime he fashioned a temporary bed for Shelby by placing a 29-by-15 inch dresser drawer on the bedroom floor filled with a pillow, a sheet, and a blanket for padding. That night, Jennifer laid Shelby in the drawer bed to sleep. Shelby awoke around 5:00 a.m. and Jennifer and Defendant placed Shelby back to sleep on her stomach in the drawer. When Defendant woke up hours later, he discovered that Shelby was not breathing and frantically sought help. Resuscitation efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.

{6} At the hospital police interviewed Defendant and Jennifer, and later that afternoon went to inspect their home. One officer created a videotape of what he saw, which was played for the jury at trial. Several witnesses catalogued the unsafe and unsanitary conditions in and around the home, including the presence of rodent droppings in various places in the house, such as the cabinets where the dishes were stored and in Shelby's makeshift drawer bed. The home had no gas utility or hot water because the propane tank was empty and disconnected. Dirty clothes were scattered throughout the house; a strong-smelling bag of dirty diapers was left on the floor in the master bedroom next to the drawer bed, and there was a bowl of curdled milk on the floor in the kitchen. Outside, the yard contained a trash pit rife with flies and a pungent odor.

{7} The home was also in need of repair and maintenance. The ceiling tiles were stained and starting to grow mold, evidencing a water leak, and one area of the ceiling in the living room appeared ready to collapse. The smoke detector had been disabled and was without a battery. The shower leaked and appeared to have mold, and a razor was left out in the bathroom where it might have been accessible to the children. Outside the home, where the children would run around barefoot and in diapers, there were glass shards from a broken window and a collapsed shed that contained exposed, rusty nails sticking out of lumber on the ground. The ramp leading to the front door of the mobile home contained a gap of several inches. There were also open cans of solvents or cleaners on the porch.

{8} On a positive note, the refrigerator contained fresh milk and cheese, and the record indicates that the children were physically healthy and well-nourished. There was no evidence of drugs or alcohol in the home. Jennifer Wheeler testified that Defendant never used drugs and rarely consumed alcohol, and in fact he had helped her stop using drugs when they met.

{9} On these facts, the State charged Defendant with one count of child abuse resulting in death and three counts of child abuse by endangerment, one count for each child. After a three-day trial which focused on Shelby's death, the jury acquitted on the charge of child abuse resulting in death, but convicted Defendant of the three endangerment counts, including the count pertaining to Shelby. The Court of Appeals reversed one of the three convictions, holding that Defendant's abuse of his two sons occurred as a single course of conduct stemming from the conditions in the home and constituted only one violation of the statute. State v. Chavez, 2008-NMCA-126, ¶ 19, 145 N.M. 11, 193 P.3d 558. However, the Court held that the drawer bed presented a danger unique to baby Shelby and was sufficient to support a second, separate conviction for child endangerment. Id. ¶ 20. On certiorari, Defendant argues that the conditions in his home, including the makeshift bed he fashioned for his daughter, were the result of the family's poverty and did not endanger his children within the meaning of our child abuse statute.

Standard of Review

{10} To the extent Defendant asks us to interpret our criminal child abuse statute, that presents a question of law which is reviewed de novo on appeal. See State ex rel. Children, Youth & Families Dep't v. Shawna C., 2005-NMCA-066, ¶ 24, 137 N.M. 687, 114 P.3d 367 (citing State v. Rowell, 121 N.M. 111, 114, 908 P.2d 1379, 1382 (1995)). A statute defining criminal conduct must be strictly construed. Santillanes v. State, 115 N.M. 215, 221, 849 P.2d 358, 364 (1993). "A criminal statute may not be applied beyond its intended scope, and it is a fundamental rule of constitutional law that crimes must be defined with appropriate definiteness." Id. (citing State v. Bybee, 109 N.M. 44, 46, 781 P.2d 316, 318 (Ct.App.1989)).

{11} After reviewing the statutory standard, we apply a substantial evidence standard to review the sufficiency of the evidence at trial. State v. Treadway, 2006-NMSC-008, ¶ 7, 139 N.M. 167, 130 P.3d 746. "`[T]he relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.'" State v. Garcia, 114 N.M. 269, 274, 837 P.2d 862, 867 (1992) (alteration in original) (emphasis omitted) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979)). In performing this review, we must view the evidence in the "light most favorable to the guilty verdict, indulging all reasonable inferences and resolving all conflicts in the evidence in favor of the verdict." State v. Cunningham, 2000-NMSC-009, ¶ 26, 128 N.M. 711, 998 P.2d 176. "The reviewing court does not weigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the fact finder as long as there is sufficient evidence to support the verdict." State v. Mora, 1997-NMSC-060, ¶ 27, 124 N.M. 346, 950 P.2d 789.

Child Abuse and Neglect

{12} Given the special recognition of the needs of children and their inability to protect themselves, our Legislature has adopted a framework of both criminal and civil laws to address child abuse. State v. Graham, 2005-NMSC-004, ¶ 9, 137 N.M. 197, 109 P.3d 285. Recognizing the wide variety of ways that a child can be harmed by abuse and neglect, our Legislature has empowered the State with a broad array of civil remedies, ranging from the benign, like ensuring that children receive nutritious meals, to the intrusive, such as...

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