State v. Jim

Decision Date31 January 2022
Docket NumberA-1-CA-36024
Citation508 P.3d 937
Parties STATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Leo JIM, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico

Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General, Santa Fe, NM, Lauren J. Wolongevicz, Assistant Attorney General, Albuquerque, NM, for Appellee

Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender, Aja Oishi, Assistant Appellate Defender, Santa Fe, NM, for Appellant

DUFFY, Judge

{1} Defendant Leo Jim asks us to determine whether a police inventory search of a locked gun safe inside his pickup truck violated his right to be free from an unreasonable search under Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution. We hold that the search in this case violated the New Mexico Constitution and reverse the district court's denial of Defendant's motion to suppress.

BACKGROUND

{2} At around 8:00 p.m. in March 2015, Officer Mosley with the Farmington Police Department was dispatched to the San Juan Plaza shopping center in response to a report that a subject—Defendant—would not leave. Defendant had apparently been sitting inside a pickup truck in the parking lot for several hours. After observing Defendant, a security guard asked Defendant to leave; Defendant drove to Dunkin’ Donuts on the other side of the parking lot but immediately returned. The security guard approached Defendant again and asked him to leave; Defendant would not, and the security guard called the police. Officer Mosley arrived about twenty minutes later.

{3} Defendant got out of the truck and walked toward Officer Mosley, at which point the officer placed Defendant in handcuffs and arrested him for trespassing, a misdemeanor offense. See NMSA 1978, § 30-14-1(B), (E) (1995). Officer Mosley advised Defendant that his truck would be impounded. The truck was locked but Officer Mosley used Defendant's keys to open the door and proceeded to inventory the truck's contents. Officer Mosley found a methamphetamine pipe, smoking straw, and tin foil with heroin residue underneath the driver's side floor mat and seized those items. He found a locked gun safe under the rear seat and removed it from the truck for safekeeping pending owner pickup. The officer found a key for the safe on Defendant's key ring and used it to unlock the safe; inside, he found a small handgun and a small amount of heroin.

{4} The State filed a criminal information charging Defendant with criminal trespass, contrary to Section 30-14-1(B) ; possession of a controlled substance (heroin), contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 30-31-23(E) (2011, amended 2021) ; and possession of drug paraphernalia, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 30-31-25.1(A) (2001, amended 2019). Defendant moved to suppress all evidence illegally obtained as the fruit of an unreasonable warrantless search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution. The State responded that the search following Defendant's arrest was a valid inventory search. The State pointed out that inventory searches are a well-established exception to the warrant requirement and are lawful if three requirements are satisfied: (1) the search is of a vehicle in police custody or control, (2) the search is conducted pursuant to established police regulations or procedures, and (3) the search is reasonable. The district court initially granted Defendant's motion, concluding the State had not established that the Farmington Police Department had a policy permitting Officer Mosley to unlock containers encountered during the inventory search. The court reversed its decision, however, after the State filed a motion to reconsider and introduced evidence of a police policy permitting the opening of locked containers.

{5} Defendant conditionally pled no contest to one charge of possession of a controlled substance (heroin) and received a conditional discharge, but reserved his right to appeal the district court's denial of his motion to suppress.

DISCUSSION

{6} At issue in this appeal is whether the warrantless search of a locked gun safe during the course of an automobile inventory search violated Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution. Defendant argues that "the search was unreasonable under Article II, Section 10 because his legitimate expectation of privacy in the contents of his locked gun safe outweighed any purported governmental interest in conducting a warrantless inventory search of the locked gun safe." The State argues that we should not diverge from the federal inventory search standard and maintains that the search was reasonable under both the federal and state constitutions.

{7} "The constitutionality of a search or seizure is a mixed question of law and fact and demands de novo review." State v. Ochoa , 2009-NMCA-002, ¶ 6, 146 N.M. 32, 206 P.3d 143 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "When a defendant invokes our inherent power as a separate sovereign in our federalist system of government to provide more liberty under the New Mexico Constitution than is mandated by the United States Constitution," we utilize the interstitial approach to constitutional interpretation set forth in State v. Gomez , 1997-NMSC-006, ¶¶ 19, 22-23, 122 N.M. 777, 932 P.2d 1. Ochoa , 2009-NMCA-002, ¶ 6, 146 N.M. 32, 206 P.3d 143 (emphasis omitted). The Gomez interstitial analysis requires us to answer three questions: (1) whether the right asserted by the defendant is protected under the federal constitution, (2) whether the defendant preserved the state constitutional claim, and (3) whether there exists any one of three reasons for diverging from federal precedent. State v. Crane , 2014-NMSC-026, ¶ 12, 329 P.3d 689.

The Fourth Amendment Does Not Prohibit the Opening of a Locked Container During an Automobile Inventory Search

{8} Automobile inventory searches are a well-defined but controversial exception to the warrant requirement. Colorado v. Bertine , 479 U.S. 367, 371, 107 S.Ct. 738, 93 L.Ed.2d 739 (1987). Nearly fifty years ago, the United States Supreme Court legitimized the "routine practice of securing and inventorying" the contents of an automobile after it had been impounded. South Dakota v. Opperman , 428 U.S. 364, 369, 96 S.Ct. 3092, 49 L.Ed.2d 1000 (1976). But see State v. Ingram , 914 N.W.2d 794, 810 (Iowa 2018) (noting that "[t]he majority opinions in Bertine and Opperman were highly contested and provoked vigorous dissents"). In evaluating whether the practice violated the Fourth Amendment, the Court began by emphasizing that "less rigorous warrant requirements govern because the expectation of privacy with respect to one's automobile is significantly less than that relating to one's home or office." Opperman , 428 U.S. at 367, 96 S.Ct. 3092. The Court indicated that inventory procedures "developed in response to three distinct needs: the protection of the owner's property while it remains in police custody, the protection of the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property, and the protection of the police from potential danger[.]" Id. at 369, 96 S.Ct. 3092 (citations omitted). In light of these purposes, the Court concluded that "inventories pursuant to standard police procedures are reasonable" under the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 372, 96 S.Ct. 3092 ; see Bertine , 479 U.S. at 374, 107 S.Ct. 738 (holding that "inventory procedures administered in good faith satisfy the Fourth Amendment"); Cady v. Dombrowski , 413 U.S. 433, 446, 93 S.Ct. 2523, 37 L.Ed.2d 706 (1973) (holding that the absence of a warrant did not render a community caretaking search of a vehicle's trunk unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment). But see Ingram , 914 N.W.2d at 804 (noting that in Bertine , the Court indicated that "[a] warrantless inventory search and seizure might be invalid if the accused can show the government action was in bad faith or for the sole purpose of investigation, a very high bar" (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)).

{9} Since Opperman , the United States Supreme Court's inventory search jurisprudence has focused on whether police followed standardized procedures during the search. In Bertine , the Court noted the need for a single, familiar standard to guide police officers with limited time and expertise. 479 U.S. at 374-75, 107 S.Ct. 738. But cf. People v. Bertine , 706 P.2d 411, 418 (Colo. 1985) (en banc) (concluding that "the governmental interests served by the search were not substantial" and that "the defendant's privacy interests in [closed containers] outweighed the government's need to inventory their contents"). The Court has uniformly upheld inventory searches when police followed standard procedures, e.g. , Bertine , 479 U.S. at 369, 107 S.Ct. 738 (affirming the search of a closed backpack found inside the defendant's van after he was arrested for driving while under the influence of alcohol), and found them unconstitutional when they have not, see Florida v. Wells , 495 U.S. 1, 4-5, 110 S.Ct. 1632, 109 L.Ed.2d 1 (1990) (concluding that the search of a locked suitcase in the defendant's trunk violated the Fourth Amendment because "the Florida Highway Patrol had no policy [whatsoever] with respect to the opening of closed containers encountered during an inventory search ... [and] absent such a policy, the instant search was not sufficiently regulated to satisfy the Fourth Amendment").

{10} The Court remarked in Wells that "policies of opening all containers ... are unquestionably permissible[.]" Id. at 4, 110 S.Ct. 1632. After Wells , federal courts have broadly upheld inventory searches of locked containers inside automobiles where police followed their own inventory search procedures. See, e.g. , United States v. Thompson , 29 F.3d 62, 64-66 (2d Cir. 1994) (upholding an inventory search of a locked briefcase, opened using the defendant's key, because police did not search in bad faith and complied with the police's standardized inventory search procedures); ...

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