State v. Johnson

Decision Date20 December 2000
Docket Number No. 25, No. 796., No. 950
Citation130 N.M. 6,2001 NMSC 1,15 P.3d 1233
PartiesSTATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff-Petitioner, v. Albert JOHNSON, Defendant-Respondent. State of New Mexico, Plaintiff-Petitioner, v. Chuck Wenger, Defendant-Respondent.
CourtNew Mexico Supreme Court

Patricia A. Madrid, Attorney General, Patricia Gandert, Assistant Attorney General, Santa Fe, NM, for Petitioner.

Phyllis H. Subin, Chief Public Defender, Thomas DeMartino, Assistant Public Defender, Liane E. Kerr, Albuquerque, NM, for Respondents.


BACA, Justice.

{1} In these consolidated cases, we are called upon to clarify the offense of driving while intoxicated (DWI) and define its parameters. We granted certiorari pursuant to NMSA 1978, § 34-5-14(B) (1972) in order to review two cases which have been consolidated to address whether the State can charge a defendant with DWI pursuant to NMSA 1978, § 66-8-102 (1997, prior to 1999 amendment) when the defendant is on private property and in actual physical control of a non-moving vehicle. After a careful and in-depth analysis of the applicable statutes, existing case law, and the policy underlying our DWI legislation, we reject any public/private property distinction with respect to the offense of DWI. As such, the State may charge a person who is in actual physical control of a non-moving vehicle with DWI despite the fact that he or she is on private property. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals' decisions upholding the district court's orders dismissing the charges against the defendants.


{2} There are no disputed issues of fact in either of these consolidated cases. The parties have stipulated to the facts in their respective cases as follows. On January 10, 1998, an Aztec police officer responded to a dispatch call that reported an intoxicated driver in a Dodge truck with Texas license plate, RL0408. The officer located the described truck parked on private property with the Respondent, Chuck Wenger, seated in the driver's seat. Although the engine of the vehicle was not running, the key was in the ignition. After conducting the standard field sobriety tests, the officer believed that Mr. Wenger was under the influence of an intoxicating liquor and arrested him for DWI. Mr. Wenger's blood alcohol test results indicated .35 and .34 grams of alcohol in two hundred liters of breath—more than four times the legal limit.

{3} Similarly, on March 15, 1998, a Farmington police officer observed a vehicle parked in the private parking lot of a motel. The officer noticed an individual, later identified as the Respondent, Albert Johnson, sitting in the driver's seat. Mr. Johnson was noticeably nodding his head in an exaggerated manner as if he were extremely fatigued. The vehicle's engine was running, the key was in the ignition, and a large pool of condensation was found under the exhaust pipes, indicating that the car had possibly been at the location for three hours. Observing signs of intoxication, the officer conducted the standard field sobriety tests. As a result of these tests, Mr. Johnson was arrested for DWI. His breath test results indicated a blood alcohol level of .18 and .17—more than twice the legal limit. {4} Both Mr. Wenger and Mr. Johnson were charged with DWI. The district court found in both cases that, although Mr. Wenger and Mr. Johnson were in actual physical control of their respective vehicles as defined in Boone v. State, 105 N.M. 223, 226, 731 P.2d 366, 369 (1986), neither one of them was "operating" their vehicles because the vehicles were not on a public highway as defined by UJI 14-4511 NMRA 2000. Accordingly, the district court held that neither Mr. Wenger nor Mr. Johnson could be charged under Section 66-8-102 for DWI and dismissed the charges against them. In both cases, the State appealed to the Court of Appeals, which upheld the district court's orders. See State v. Wenger, 1999-NMCA-092, ¶ 1, 127 N.M. 625, 985 P.2d 1205

; State v. Johnson, NMCA 20,230, slip op. (Aug. 19, 1999). In Wenger the Court of Appeals held that "when a DWI charge is based on `actual physical control' rather than `driving,' that offense must take place on a highway as defined by the Motor Vehicle Code." 1999-NMCA-092, ¶ 13, 127 N.M. 625,

985 P.2d 1205 (relying on the definition of "highway" in NMSA 1978, § 66-1-4.8(B) (1991)). In conformity with Wenger, the Court of Appeals, by memorandum opinion, upheld the district court's order dismissing the charges against Mr. Johnson. Neither Mr. Wenger nor Mr. Johnson challenge the finding that they were in actual physical control of their vehicles. Likewise, the State agrees that the defendants were on private property at the time of their arrests.


{5} This Court must determine whether the Legislature intended to place a geographical limitation on the offense of DWI depending on the type of activity constituting the "driving" of a vehicle. To resolve this issue we must ascertain and interpret the Legislature's intent in drafting the statutes governing this offense. The standard of review for issues of statutory interpretation and construction is de novo. See State v. Rowell, 121 N.M. 111, 114, 908 P.2d 1379, 1382 (1995)


{6} The issue presented herein necessitates the interpretation of Section 66-8-102, NMSA 1978, § 66-7-2 (1978), and NMSA 1978, § 66-1-4.4(K) (1991, prior to 1999 amendment). As we engage in our interpretation of these statutes we keep in mind basic rules of statutory construction. "The starting point in every case involving the construction of a statute is an examination of the language utilized by [the Legislature]" in drafting the pertinent statutory provisions. State v. Wood, 117 N.M. 682, 685, 875 P.2d 1113, 1116 (Ct.App.1994). "When a statute contains language which is clear and unambiguous, we must give effect to that language and refrain from further statutory interpretation." State v. Jonathan M., 109 N.M. 789, 790, 791 P.2d 64, 65 (1990); accord State v. Shije, 1998 NMCA 102, ¶ 6, 125 N.M. 581, 964 P.2d 142

. The plain meaning rule, however, is only a guideline for determining the legislative intent. Junge v. John D. Morgan Constr. Co., 118 N.M. 457, 463, 882 P.2d 48, 54 (Ct.App.1994). It is the responsibility of this Court to search for and effectuate the purpose and object of the underlying statutes. See State ex rel. Helman v. Gallegos, 117 N.M. 346, 353, 871 P.2d 1352, 1359 (1994). These statutes should be harmonized and construed together when possible, in a way that facilitates achievement of their goals. See State ex rel. Quintana v. Schnedar, 115 N.M. 573, 575-76, 855 P.2d 562, 564-65 (1993). Accordingly, we analyze these statutes not only within the statutory scheme of the Motor Vehicle Code but also within the context of the policy underlying the offense of DWI. The purpose of our DWI legislation is to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the people of New Mexico. See State v. Harrison, 115 N.M. 73, 77, 846 P.2d 1082, 1086 (Ct.App.1992); see also Incorporated County of Los Alamos v. Johnson, 108 N.M. 633, 634, 776 P.2d 1252, 1253 (1989). We must adhere to this policy as we analyze the applicable statutory provisions.


{7} Our interpretation of the relevant statutory provisions leads us to the conclusion that there is no public/private property distinction in our DWI law. Section 66-8-102 states in pertinent part: "It is unlawful for any person who is under the influence of intoxicating liquor to drive any vehicle within this state." Section 66-8-102(A) (emphasis added). The only geographical limitation to the offense of DWI is found in the operative words "within this state." The plain meaning of "within this state" is quite broad and does not specify a distinction between public and private property in the interior of the State of New Mexico. We cannot ignore the Legislature's choice of words, especially when the Legislature has used more specific phraseology when it has intended to limit the reach of a statute. See, e.g., NMSA 1978, § 66-8-114 (1978) (prohibiting careless driving "on the highway"); State v. Brennan, 1998 NMCA 176, ¶¶ 5-6, 126 N.M. 389, 970 P.2d 161 (holding that, unlike the offense of DWI, careless driving is prohibited on highways alone). In general, therefore, the DWI statute has no geographical limitation and applies to both public and private property.

{8} Moreover, the Legislature further defined the scope of Section 66-8-102 in Section 66-7-2. Section 66-7-2(A) provides the general geographical limitation: "The provisions of Article 7 of Chapter 66 NMSA 1978, relating to the operation of vehicles, refer exclusively to the operation of vehicles upon highways, except where a different place is specifically referred to in a given section." Section 66-7-2(B), which by its express terms applies to DWI, provides an exception to the general geographical limitation: "The provisions of Section[ ] ... 66-8-102 ... shall apply upon highways and elsewhere throughout the state." (Emphasis added.) "Highway" is defined as "every way or place generally open to the use of the public as a matter of right for the purpose of vehicular travel, even though it may be temporarily closed or restricted for the purpose of construction, maintenance, repair or reconstruction." NMSA 1978, § 66-1-4.8(B) (1991). By providing a definite exception in Section 66-7-2(B), the Legislature clearly intended to prohibit DWI in a geographical area that reached beyond that falling within the definition of "highway." Analyzing these statutes together, therefore, we find that a person can violate Section 66-8-102 on public as well as private property. This interpretation is consistent with other jurisdictions which have determined that "elsewhere" encompasses both public and private property. See, e.g., Lunceford v. City of Northport, 555 So.2d 246, 247 (Ala.Crim.App.1988)

; State v. Budden, 226 Kan. 150, 595 P.2d 1138, 1141 (1979); Rettig v. State, 334 Md. 419, 639 A.2d 670, 673-74 (1...

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