State v. Pruitt

CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico
PartiesSTATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. RANDALL KEITH PRUITT, Defendant-Appellant.
Docket NumberA-1-CA-38109
Decision Date26 August 2021

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellee,

RANDALL KEITH PRUITT, Defendant-Appellant.

No. A-1-CA-38109

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

August 26, 2021

Corrections to this opinion/decision not affecting the outcome, at the Court's discretion, can occur up to the time of publication with NM Compilation Commission. The Court will ensure that the electronic version of this opinion/decision is updated accordingly in Odyssey.


Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Santa Fe, NM John Kloss, Assistant Attorney General Albuquerque, NM for Appellee

Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender Nina Lalevic, Assistant Appellate Defender Santa Fe, NM for Appellant



{¶1} Defendant Randall Pruitt appeals his convictions for driving under the influence (DUI), leaving the scene of an accident, and failure to control speed or use due care on four grounds: (1) the seizure of his person was unlawful because police entered his home without a warrant; (2) the jury instruction for leaving the scene of an accident resulted in fundamental error; (3) the district court judge failed to recuse himself; and (4) the State's toxicology expert testified outside the scope of her expertise. Because we agree with Defendant's first two claims of error, we reverse his convictions for DUI and leaving the scene of an accident and therefore, we need not reach his fourth claim. We reject Defendant's claim that the district court judge abused his discretion by failing to recuse himself.


{¶2} Late one evening, Defendant was driving home in a SUV from his used car dealership. As he approached his driveway, he crashed his SUV into the SUV of his neighbor, Ronna Mares. Mares heard the crash and went outside, where she saw Defendant climbing out of the passenger side of his vehicle. Mares immediately recognized him. Mares asked Defendant whether he was injured, which he denied, and she observed him to be moving slowly. Defendant then retreated into his home without providing insurance information or waiting for police to arrive.

{¶3} After officers arrived, they attempted to make contact with Defendant by knocking on his door for approximately seven and a half minutes. Eventually, Defendant came to the door and the officers requested that he come out of his home. Officer Tim Orum did not note any signs of impairment except that Defendant was moving and speaking slowly, nor did he suspect that Defendant had been driving under the influence. Defendant did not come out of the house, so Officer Orum reached through the doorway and grabbed Defendant's arm. Defendant pulled away, and Officer Orum reached further inside and grabbed Defendant, pulling him by the jacket outside onto the porch. Defendant agreed to perform standardized field sobriety tests, which he did not successfully complete. Officer Orum obtained a search warrant for Defendant's blood, which revealed the presence of cocaine and a benzodiazepine.

{¶4}Defendant was ultimately charged by criminal information with driving under the influence, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 66-8-102(A) (2016), failure to control speed or use due care, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 66-7-301(B) (2015), leaving the scene of an accident, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 66-7-202 (1978), and failure to give notice of an accident under NMSA 1978, Section 66-7-206 (1991, amended 2021). A jury convicted Defendant on the first three charges, but acquitted on the charge of failure to give notice of an accident. Defendant appeals.


I. The Officer's Seizure of Defendant Was Unlawful

{¶5} Defendant argues Officer Orum's warrantless entry into his home violated his right to be free from an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution, and that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress all evidence collected after he was seized. Appellate review of a motion to suppress presents a mixed question of fact and law. State v. Vandenberg, 2003-NMSC-030, ¶ 17, 134 N.M. 566, 81 P.3d 19. We review the facts under a substantial evidence standard and apply a de novo review to the district court's application of the law to the facts. State v. Pierce, 2003-NMCA-117, ¶ 8, 134 N.M. 388, 77 P.3d 292.

{¶6} "Because the physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed, warrantless home entries are ordinarily presumed unreasonable." State v. Nance, 2011-NMCA-048, ¶ 18, 149 N.M. 644, 253 P.3d 934 (alteration, internal quotation marks, and citation omitted). There are exceptions to this general rule, and a warrantless entry into a home may be valid when supported by both probable cause and exigent circumstances. Id. ¶ 12; see also Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 590 (holding that the "Fourth Amendment [draws] a firm line at the entrance to the house. Absent exigent circumstances, that threshold may not reasonably be crossed without a warrant"). Exigent circumstances include "an emergency situation requiring swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, or to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or destruction of evidence." State v. Gomez, 1997-NMSC-006, ¶ 39, 122 N.M. 777, 932 P.2d 1 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

{¶7}The State attempts to justify Officer Orum's warrantless entry into Defendant's home based on probable cause and exigent circumstance. Defendant argues that there were no exigent circumstances in this case to justify the warrantless entry. The district court found that "entry into the home to bring [Defendant] out onto the porch was justified by exigent circumstances related to the possible dissipation of alcohol in his body" and that the "[o]fficers obviously could not allow him to go back inside and come back out for safety reasons." The district court concluded that "[u]nder the language in Nance, . . . the intrusion into the home and seizure of [Defendant] was de minimus, and tailored to the exigency in this case: the dissipation of evidence and safety concerns."

{¶8} While this Court has clarified that the dissipation of alcohol does not automatically justify a warrantless entry into a home, we do recognize that it is a factor to consider in determining the existence of exigent circumstances. Nance, 2011-NMCA-048, ¶¶ 18, 22-23. Regardless, we agree with Defendant that there was no evidence supporting that exigency in this case when Officer Orum crossed the threshold to pull Defendant out of his home. At the hearing on Defendant's motion to suppress, Officer Orum was the sole witness. He testified unequivocally that at the time that he entered and removed Defendant from his home, he did not suspect Defendant of driving under the influence:

Defense Counsel: But prior to pulling him out you didn't suspect him of a DUI at that time
Officer Orum: Not a DUI, just

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