State v. Hall

Decision Date05 December 2012
Docket NumberNo. 32,943.,32,943.
Citation294 P.3d 1235
PartiesSTATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff–Petitioner, v. Bruce HALL, Defendant–Respondent.
CourtNew Mexico Supreme Court


Gary K. King, Attorney General, Margaret McLean, Assistant Attorney General, Santa Fe, NM, for Petitioner.

Jacqueline Cooper, Chief Public Defender, B. Douglas Wood III, Assistant Appellate Defender, Santa Fe, NM, for Respondent.


CHÁVEZ, Justice.

{1} Defendant Bruce Hall was convicted of a sex crime in California pursuant to a plea agreement. Hall subsequently moved to New Mexico and was charged with the fourth-degree felony of failing to register as a sex offender in violation of NMSA 1978, Section 29–11A–4(N) (2005). The New Mexico Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), NMSA 1978, §§ 29–11A–1 to –10 (1995, as amended through 2007), requires a person convicted of any of twelve enumerated sex offenses, or who is convicted of an equivalent offense in any other jurisdiction, to register as a sex offender with the county sheriff for the New Mexico county in which that person resides. What constitutes an equivalent offense and how a court makes such a determination are the subjects of this opinion. We hold that an offense is “equivalent” to a New Mexico offense, for purposes of SORNA, if the defendant's actual conduct that gave rise to the out-of-state conviction would have constituted one of the twelve enumerated offenses requiring registration pursuant to SORNA. When the defendant's out-of-state conviction results from a plea agreement, courts may look to the charging documents, the defendant's written plea agreement, and the transcript of the plea hearing to determine the defendant's actual conduct and whether such conduct would have constituted one of the twelve enumerated offenses.


{2} Hall moved to New Mexico in 2006 from California, where he had previously been convicted of violating a California misdemeanor statute prohibiting “annoying or molesting” a child under the age of eighteen. Cal.Penal Code § 647.6(a)(1) (West 1995). As a result of this conviction, Hall was required to register as a sex offender in California.

{3} In 2008, Hall called the Las Cruces Police Department and claimed that he was being harassed. Hall told the responding officer that he was being harassed because he was a convicted sex offender in California. Hall also told the officer that he was not registered as a sex offender in New Mexico. Hall was charged with failure to register as a sex offender in violation of Section 29–11A–4(N).

{4} Hall moved to dismiss the charge, arguing that there was no statute in New Mexico equivalent to California's “annoying or molesting” a minor statute, and therefore his failure to register did not violate SORNA. The State responded that Hall was required to register in New Mexico because the sex crime he committed in California is equivalent to the New Mexico crime of sexual contact of a minor in the fourth degree, which is a registrable offense. The State described the conduct giving rise to the California conviction as Hall “inappropriately touch[ing] the private parts” of several boys that he was lifting up to look into a camera's viewfinder. The district court denied the motion, and Hall entered a conditional plea of guilty, allowing him to appeal the denial of his motion to dismiss.1

{5} The Court of Appeals reversed the district court's ruling, holding that Hall's California conviction was not equivalent to criminal sexual contact of a minor under SORNA and, as such, Hall was not required to register as a sex offender upon moving to New Mexico. State v. Hall, 2011–NMCA–047, ¶ 9, 149 N.M. 546, 252 P.3d 770. The Court of Appeals focused its “inquiry on the statutory elements of the [two] offenses,” id. ¶ 5, concluding that each statute required an element that the other did not, id. ¶¶ 6–8. The Court of Appeals concluded that a conviction for criminal sexual contact of a minor requires touching or the application of force, while California's “annoying or molesting” statute does not. Id. ¶ 8. The Court of Appeals therefore held that the two offenses were not “equivalent” for purposes of SORNA, id. ¶ 9, and Hall's conviction for failure to register should be reversed, id. ¶ 10. The Court of Appeals acknowledged that both statutes at issue require proof of an abnormal sexual interest in children, but nevertheless concluded that “the fact that both statutes may serve similar purposes is in no way controlling.” Id. ¶ 9. We granted the State's petition for writ of certiorari, and now reverse the Court of Appeals and remand to the district court for proceedings consistent with this opinion. Rule 12–501 NMRA.


{6} “A sex offender residing in this state shall register with the county sheriff for the county in which the sex offender resides.” Section 29–11A–4(A). A “sex offender” includes a person who “changes residence to New Mexico, when that person has been convicted of a sex offense” in another jurisdiction. Section 29–11A–3(D)(2). “Sex offense” is defined as any of twelve enumerated New Mexico offenses “or their equivalents in any other jurisdiction.” Section 29–11A–3(E).

{7} The Legislature neither defined “equivalent” nor explained how courts should determine when an out-of-state offense is equivalent to one of the twelve enumerated registrable offenses. Hall argues that for an out-of-state conviction to be equivalent to a registrable offense in New Mexico, the defendant must have been convicted of a statute that contains precisely the same elements as one of the twelve enumerated offenses. He contends that because the California offense of “annoying or molesting” a child does not contain the required elements of any of the twelve enumerated offenses, he was not convicted of a “sex offense” under SORNA.

{8} The State urges us to look beyond the elements of the offense to the actual conduct that supported the conviction in the other jurisdiction. In the State's view, if Hall was convicted on the basis of conduct that would have constituted one of the twelve enumerated offenses, the out-of-state conviction is equivalent. Under this “actual conduct” approach, it does not matter that the out-of-state offense and the New Mexico offense do not share precisely the same elements. The State contends that the conduct underlying Hall's “annoying or molesting” conviction would have constituted criminal sexual contact of a minor if it had taken place in New Mexico.

The Language and History of SORNA Suggest that It Should Be Interpreted Broadly

{9} What constitutes an equivalent offense involves a question of statutory interpretation. Interpretation of a statute is an issue of law that we review de novo. State v. Rowell, 121 N.M. 111, 114, 908 P.2d 1379, 1382 (1995). Our main goal when interpreting a statute is to give effect to the Legislature's intent. Id. Deciphering what was intended by the Legislature requires us to examine “the object the legislature sought to accomplish and the wrong it sought to remedy.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The history and background of the legislation also informs our search for legislative intent and the proper interpretation of legislation. See Chatterjee v. King, 2012–NMSC–019, ¶ 12, 280 P.3d 283 (in addition to examining the language of the statute, we consider its history and background).

{10} The Legislature has made findings that support its stated purpose in enacting SORNA, which is “to assist law enforcement agencies' efforts to protect their communities.” Section 29–11A–2(B). The Legislature has found that “sex offenders pose a significant risk of recidivism,” and “the efforts of law enforcement agencies to protect their communities from sex offenders are impaired by the lack of information available concerning convicted sex offenders who live within the agencies' jurisdictions.” Section 29–11A–2(A)(1)(2). Therefore, SORNA requires every sex offender to provide local law enforcement with comprehensive personal information including the offender's name, date of birth, social security number, address, and place of employment, as well as physical information including fingerprints and a DNA sample. Section 29–11A–4(B), (E). Other than the sex offender's social security number and DNA profile, all of this information is provided to schools and day care centers within one mile of the offender's residence, and most of the information is available to the public on the internet. Section 29–11A–5.1(D), (E).

{11} The Legislature has amended SORNA several times since its enactment in 1995 as the Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA), 1995 N.M. Laws, ch. 106, each time broadening rather than narrowing the law. Four years after enacting SORA, the Legislature added to the list of registrable offenses and began requiring nonresident sex offenders to register in New Mexico if they work or attend school in the state. 1999 N.M. Laws, ch. 19, §§ 2–3. The Legislature also deleted a provision of the law that had prohibited distribution of registry information, instead requiring information to be released to the public upon request. Compare 1995 N.M. Laws, ch. 106, § 6 (“Information obtained from a sex offender pursuant to [SORA] shall not be disseminated to persons or entities other than law enforcement agencies.”), with 1999 N.M. Laws, ch. 19, § 8(B) (describing procedure for a member of the public to obtain registry information).

{12} In 2000, the Legislature began requiring law enforcement to give sex offenders' information to local schools, and it authorized the Department of Public Safety to create a website publishing the information to the general public. 2000 N.M. Laws, ch. 8, § 4(D)-(E). It also made failure to register as a sex offender a fourth-degree felony; it had previously been a misdemeanor. Compare 1999 N.M. Laws, ch. 19, § 4(I), (J) (prescribing misdemeanor penalties for failure to register), with 2000 N.M. Laws, ch. 8, § 2(I), (J) (...

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