State v. Wright, S-1-SC-37589

Case DateJanuary 10, 2022
CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Respondent,

SOMER D. WRIGHT, Defendant-Petitioner.

No. S-1-SC-37589

Supreme Court of New Mexico

January 10, 2022


Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender

Mary Barket, Assistant Appellate Defender

Santa Fe, NM

for Petitioner

Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General

Charles J. Gutierrez, Assistant Attorney General

Santa Fe, NM

for Respondent


MICHAEL E. VIGIL, Chief Justice

{¶1} Our Legislature has directed, "No person shall be arrested for violating the Motor Vehicle Code or other law relating to motor vehicles punishable as a misdemeanor except by a commissioned, salaried peace officer who, at the time of arrest, is wearing a uniform clearly indicating the peace officer's official status." NMSA 1978, § 66-8-124(A) (2007). We held in State v. Slayton that an arrest by a police service aide in violation of Section 66-8-124(A) did not, by itself, amount to a per se violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. See 2009-NMSC-054, ¶¶ 1, 33, 147 N.M. 340, 223 P.3d 337. In this case, we are asked to determine whether the arrest of Defendant Somer D. Wright by a noncommissioned, volunteer reserve deputy in violation of the statute was constitutionally unreasonable and therefore in violation of Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution. Disagreeing with the opinion of a divided Court of Appeals panel holding that there was no constitutional violation, State v. Wright, 2019-NMCA-026, ¶¶ 6, 13, 19, 458 P.3d 604, we reverse.

{¶2} We hold that the failure to observe the requirements of Section 66-8-124(A) resulted in an illegal arrest of Defendant and violated Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution. Suppression of all evidence obtained as a result of the


arrest is therefore required. In reversing the Court of Appeals we reiterate that reviewing courts are to give sufficient deference to the findings of fact of our trial courts and not reweigh evidence on appeal. See State v. Martinez, 2018-NMSC-007, ¶¶ 13, 18, 410 P.3d 186 ("[T]he Court of Appeals erred by reweighing the evidence on appeal and failing to view the facts in the manner most favorable to the prevailing party.")


A. Factual History

{¶3} Torrance County Reserve Deputy Roy Thompson testified that around midnight on March 15, 2014, he noticed two vehicles approaching him from behind as he drove south on Highway 41, in uniform and in a marked patrol vehicle belonging to the Torrance County Sheriff's Office. The first vehicle to approach Thompson was a white Dodge truck (Defendant's truck), and the second was a green truck. Thompson testified that the headlights of Defendant's truck appeared to be "going back and forth." Thompson testified that he pulled off the highway, allowing the vehicles to pass, and that as Defendant's truck passed, it crossed the solid white line on the edge of the roadway, nearly striking Thompson's patrol vehicle. Thompson reentered the highway and accelerated to catch Defendant's truck, going as fast as eighty miles per hour on a fifty-five-mile-per-hour stretch of the highway.


Thompson testified that during the pursuit, Defendant's truck was weaving repeatedly in the roadway from the center line to the edge line.

{¶4} While following Defendant, Thompson called Torrance County Sheriff's Deputy Ron Fulfer. Deputy Fulfer instructed Thompson to follow Defendant's truck and told Thompson that he would be "right there." Also while driving, Thompson ran Defendant's license plate number and confirmed that Defendant was the owner of the truck. Thompson did not initiate a stop or activate his emergency lights or equipment. Defendant drove to her residence and pulled into her driveway where she hit a parked car, causing paint transfer. Thompson parked his patrol vehicle, parallel to the property, on the street, behind Defendant's truck. After Defendant hit the car parked in her driveway, she placed her truck in reverse, "backed up pretty far," and "almost" hit Thompson's patrol vehicle as well.

{¶5} Thompson got out of his patrol vehicle and turned his spotlight on Defendant's truck. Thompson approached Defendant's truck and identified himself as "Reserve Deputy Thompson with the Torrance County Sheriff's Department." "He was dressed in a uniform, displaying a badge of office stating 'Deputy R. Thompson' embroidered onto his shirt." Thompson noticed a "strong odor of alcohol" and asked Defendant if she had been drinking. Defendant stated that she had drunk "four green beers." Thompson told Defendant that he saw her strike the vehicle in her driveway


and that she almost backed into his patrol vehicle. Thompson then "asked" Defendant to "hang tight . . . because [he] had another deputy en route." Defendant was not restrained, but Thompson told her to remain in her truck. Defendant obeyed Thompson's order and remained in her truck for four or five minutes until Deputy Fulfer arrived.

{¶6} Upon arriving at Defendant's house, Deputy Fulfer met with Thompson. Deputy Fulfer then walked to the parked car in front of Defendant's truck and noticed a "small white scratch on the rear bumper." Next, Deputy Fulfer went to the driver's side of Defendant's truck and asked Defendant for her driver's license, which Defendant produced after Deputy Fulfer repeated his request a second time. Deputy Fulfer asked Defendant whether she had been drinking. After Defendant confirmed that she had been drinking, Deputy Fulfer asked Defendant to perform field sobriety tests, which Defendant failed. Defendant refused to blow into Deputy Fulfer's portable breath tester. Deputy Fulfer arrested Defendant for "driving under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs." Subsequently, Defendant had two blood-alcohol-content tests administered at the Torrance County Sheriff's office, for which the "results were .18 and .18."

{¶7} Defendant was charged with first-offense aggravated driving while intoxicated (DWI), NMSA 1978, § 66-8-102(D)(1), (E) (2016), a misdemeanor,


which was later amended to DWI (first offense), see § 66-8-102(C)(1), (E).

B. Procedural History

1. District court hearing and order

{¶8} Defendant filed a motion to suppress in the district court, "arguing that volunteer Reserve Deputy Roy Thompson's detention of [Defendant] was illegal and [therefore] suppression of the evidence obtained as a result of that illegal detention was warranted under the Fourth Amendment and Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution." In response, the State argued that any unlawful detention which occurred did not rise to the level of a Fourth Amendment violation under Slayton, 2009-NMSC-054. The State further asserted that any unlawful detention was "in furtherance of an important interest" and was "too brief" to have been "an unreasonable seizure under Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution." Specifically, the State argued that the "volunteer deputy had acted as any reasonable citizen would when confronted with a person suspected of driving under the influence of intoxicating liquor, making his conduct constitutionally reasonable" under Article II, Section 10.

{¶9} In addition to testifying about the stop as described above, Thompson testified about his credentials. Thompson stated that "he had been a volunteer reserve deputy with the Torrance County Sheriff's Department for fifteen to sixteen years" but that


he was not a "commissioned, salaried peace officer."

{¶10} In cross-examination, defense counsel questioned Thompson about two prior cases in which evidence had been suppressed as a result of Thompson's conduct. In one case, Thompson initiated a traffic stop for careless driving and, on appeal from the magistrate court, the seizure of the defendant was held to be illegal and unreasonable. However, Thompson said he did not remember why the evidence was suppressed. The second case involved Thompson detaining someone at a rest stop, and Thompson remembered that in that case some part of the evidence was suppressed. Following Thompson's testimony, the State conceded that Thompson lacked statutory authority to detain Defendant.

{¶11} After the parties filed their respective requested findings of fact and conclusions of law, the district court filed its findings of fact and conclusions of law. The district court concluded that Thompson arrested Defendant when he ordered her "to stay put" in her truck until Deputy Fulfer arrived and that the arrest was contrary to Section 66-8-124(A) and resulted in an illegal detention because Thompson was not a "'commissioned, salaried peace officer.'" The district court further concluded that based on the totality of the circumstances, "but for the illegal detention, Defendant would have gone inside her house before [Deputy Fulfer] arrived four to five minutes after the illegal detention," and whether "Defendant would have opened


the door for" Deputy Fulfer, or whether Deputy Fulfer would have attempted to obtain an arrest warrant or enter Defendant's home without permission, was all speculative. The district court therefore concluded that "Thompson's illegal detention of Defendant violated Article 2, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution" and that evidence obtained after Deputy Fulfer arrived on the scene should be suppressed. An order suppressing this evidence was then filed. The State appealed to the Court of Appeals.

2. Court of Appeals opinion

{¶12} A divided panel of the Court of Appeals reversed the district court's suppression order. Wright, 2019-NMCA-026, ¶¶ 3, 19. Addressing the Article II, Section 10 argument, the majority acknowledged that there is no bright-line rule for determining constitutional reasonableness of searches and seizures in New Mexico and concluded that an examination of the officer's...

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