In State v. Olson, the New Mexico Supreme Court recently reversed a Court of Appeals decision, addressing a police officer's authority to question a person about unrelated crimes after pulling him over for a traffic violation.
An officer filling out paperwork noticed Defendant driving suspiciously. After following the defendant, the officer noticed that the car's temporary tags were expired and pulled him over. When he approached the vehicle, the officer recognized the passenger in the front seat as a prostitute. The officer then asked Defendant to step out of the car.
Defendant was holding a fanny pack and the officer asked him to place it on the hood of car, as a safety precaution. When asked for identification, Defendant reached for his fanny pack. The officer asked to look inside the fanny pack, to make sure no weapons were inside and the defendant agreed.
Inside the fanny pack the officer discovered three crack pipes. Defendant then admitted that he used the pipes to smoke cocaine. The officer arrested and handcuffed Defendant, asking him where the cocaine was located, and he directed the officer to five crack rocks in his front pocket.
An automobile stop, with detention of its occupants, is considered a seizure under the law.
Defendant was charged with possession of a controlled substance. He moved to suppress the evidence as an unlawful search and seizure under the 4th Amendment and Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution.
The 4th Amendment and Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution are intended to prevent the police from engaging in unreasonable searches and seizures. An automobile stop, with detention of its occupants, is considered a seizure under the law. Under New Mexico law the officer must have a valid reason for the traffic stop, and any questions asked during the stop must be reasonably related to the reason for the stop. However, the officer may expand the questioning where he has reasonable suspicion that other criminal activity has been or is occurring.
After a suppression hearing, the district court denied the motion to suppress. The Court of Appeals then reversed on the grounds that the officer could not expand the traffic stop into an investigation of prostitution solicitation, tainting the fanny pack search.
The NM Supreme Court noted that normally the mere presence of a suspected prostitute would not be enough to allow the officer to expand his questioning beyond the traffic search. However, in this case, the officer described several specific instances of Defendant's suspicious behavior. The Court elected to defer to the training and experience of the officer with regard to what constituted suspicious behavior. While recognizing that police officers should not be permitted to stop and harass individuals just because they associate with known criminals, the Court determined that was not the case here because the officer properly pulled Defendant over for the expired tags.
The defense of criminal charges often turns on the admission of evidence. Often the best defense is a good offense in seeking to have the evidence suppressed under illegal search and seizure grounds. It is important to discuss these matters with an experienced criminal defense attorney as this is often the best line of defense.
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