Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in New Mexico Supreme Court
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Officers from the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) approached Defendant Ronald Widmer in a Walgreens parking lot in the late evening. Defendant, accompanied by a woman, was trying to start a motor scooter. APD had received an anonymous tip concerning two persons and a scooter with an ignition that “appeared to be tampered with.” The officers suspected that the scooter was stolen. After briefly speaking with Defendant and the woman, officers ran Defendant’s personal identification information and the scooter’s vehicle identification number (VIN) through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) to check for outstanding warrants and any stolen vehicle reports. NCIC did not return a stolen vehicle report but did report Defendant’s outstanding felony warrants for trafficking drugs. Officers placed Defendant in handcuffs while they awaited confirmation that the warrants were valid. While Defendant was in custody, but before he was advised of his Miranda rights, an officer asked him, “Is there anything on your person that I should know about?” Defendant responded, “I have meth.” Officers collected a white powder from inside a pill container hanging from Defendant’s belt loop and placed it in a plastic evidence bag. After officers recovered the physical evidence, Defendant muttered, “Well, I’m gonna have another charge now.” The white powder recovered from Defendant’s belt loop tested positive for methamphetamine. As a result, Defendant was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance. At issue before the New Mexico Supreme Court was whether the officer's question to Defendant was sufficiently related to protecting officer safety to qualify for the public safety exception to the admissibility requirements of Miranda, announced in New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984). The Court of Appeals determined that the question in this case did not qualify for the Quarles public safety exception, reversed Defendant's conviction for possession of methamphetamine, and remanded for a new trial. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding the Quarles public safety exception applied in this case because of the need to determine whether Defendant was armed or carrying potentially harmful drug paraphernalia before officers performed a pat-down search. The Court of Appeals was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "New Mexico v. Widmer" on Justia Law

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After retrial, defendant Matthew Sloan appealed his convictions for burglary and felony murder. At the second trial, the State presented evidence that defendant, armed with a rifle and accompanied by two other men, broke into the victim’s house to retrieve drugs or money from the victim and that defendant shot and killed the victim during the burglary. On appeal, defendant argued: (1) the district court denied him his right to be present and to confront witnesses against him by failing to determine whether he made a valid waiver of his right to be present at three pretrial hearings; (2) he received ineffective assistance from his trial counsel; and (3) the district court committed reversible error by declining to instruct the jury on voluntary manslaughter as a lesser included offense. Finding no reversible error, the New Mexico Supreme Court affirmed defendant's convictions. View "New Mexico v. Sloan" on Justia Law

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The two issues presented by this case came to the New Mexico Supreme Court from a district court’s decision to grant Defendant Jesse Lente’s habeas petition. The first concerned Lente’s indictment, charging him with perpetrating various forms of sexual abuse on a regular basis against M.C., his stepdaughter (a so-called "resident child molester" case). The district court, relying on Valentine v. Konteh, 395 F.3d 626 (6th Cir. 2005), and New Mexico v. Dominguez, 178 P.3d 834, concluded that Lente’s indictment included “carbon copy” charges - charges that were truly identical, and not distinguishable by time or date or by specification that each charge was predicated on different acts - that impermissibly subjected him to double jeopardy. The second issue concerned the district court’s determination that M.C.’s testimony was too generic and insufficient to support Lente’s multiple convictions. Her testimony, the district court concluded, could support only one conviction for each type of sex-abuse crime Lente perpetrated and, therefore, Lente’s multiple convictions violated double jeopardy. The Supreme Court disagreed as to both issues, finding the district court wrongly interpreted the principles articulated in Valentine and Dominguez and erred in determining that Lente’s indictment included carbon copy charges that produced a double jeopardy violation. The Court took the opportunity of this case to clarify the principles courts must utilize when evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence presented in resident child molester cases. View "New Mexico v. Lente" on Justia Law

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The New Mexico Supreme Court addressed the enforceability of a guilty plea, particularly because the plea did not expressly, affirmatively state on the record, the accused plead guilty. The Court of Appeals concluded that, where the words, "I plead guilty," are not spoken, the plea is not enforceable no matter the circumstances of the plea proceeding, the overall context of the plea colloquy, or the clarity with which a defendant otherwise manifested an intent to plead guilty. The Supreme Court found this was incorrect. "Whether a plea is knowing and voluntary must be assessed from the totality of the circumstances. No magic words are either required or adequate to resolve that inquiry." View "New Mexico v. Yancey" on Justia Law

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Defendant Lloyd Aguilar was tried on an indictment charging a number of offenses related to a carjacking in which the victim was beaten and shot to death. Several of the charged offenses had complex alternative theories of culpability, which likely resulted in the jury's confusion at issue in this case. After deliberation, the jury submitted executed verdict forms to the presiding trial judge. Noticing an apparent conflict in the verdicts, the trial judge, without the knowledge or participation of the parties, returned the forms to the jurors and directed them to read the instructions again and clarify their verdicts. The jury subsequently returned revised verdict forms, which the trial judge accepted in open court with the participation of the parties before the jury was discharged. On the following day, the trial judge notified the parties of his previously undisclosed ex parte contact with the jury. After a post-trial hearing on this issue, the trial court ordered a new trial on all charges on which the jury had returned final verdicts of guilty. Both the State and Defendant appealed the trial court’s order. The State argued the trial court’s grant of a new trial was made in error, and Defendant argued that while the grant of a new trial was appropriate, the principles of double jeopardy barred retrial on the counts of murder and armed robbery. The New Mexico Supreme Court held: (1) the trial court’s new trial order was not an abuse of discretion; and (2) retrial of the counts on which the jury ultimately returned guilty verdicts would not constitute double jeopardy. View "New Mexico v. Aguilar" on Justia Law

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The State charged Defendant Manuel Baca with an open count of murder by criminal complaint. The district court found by clear and convincing evidence that Defendant committed first-degree murder and determined that he was dangerous, but not competent to stand trial. The district court ordered Defendant detained by the New Mexico Department of Health (Department) pursuant to NMSA 1978, Section 31-9- 1.5(D) (1999). Defendant appealed that order, contesting the sufficiency of the evidence. Although Defendant had not been convicted of first-degree murder, Defendant still faced a lifetime detention. The New Mexico Supreme Court determined sufficient evidence supported Defendant's criminal commitment for life, thus affirming the district court's order. View "New Mexico v. Baca" on Justia Law

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Defendant Jason Comitz was convicted of first-degree felony murder (by shooting at a dwelling) and second-degree murder for the death of the same person, four counts of aggravated battery of two other victims, two counts of aggravated assault of the same two victims, two counts of conspiracy to commit aggravated battery of the same two victims, and one count each of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, shooting at a dwelling, conspiracy to shoot at the same dwelling, and child abuse. The New Mexico Supreme Court was asked to address: (1) whether the State’s evidence was sufficient to prove the crime of shooting at a dwelling and conspiracy to shoot at a dwelling; (2) whether multiple convictions violated Defendant’s right under the United States Constitution to be free from double jeopardy; and (3) whether the district court erred in failing to declare a mistrial on grounds that the State allegedly elicited bad-act evidence in violation of its pretrial ruling. The Supreme Court affirmed Defendant’s convictions of second-degree murder under Count 1, one count of aggravated battery under Count 3, one count of aggravated battery under Count 4, one count of conspiracy to commit aggravated battery under Count 5, one count of aggravated assault under Count 6, one count of aggravated assault under Count 7, and one count of child abuse under Count 9, together with the associated firearm enhancements as decided by the jury. The Court vacated Defendant’s other convictions. The matter was remanded to the district court for further proceedings. View "New Mexico v. Comitz" on Justia Law

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The New Mexico Secretary of State sought to reinstate straight-ticket voting in the November 2018 general election. A coalition of voters, political parties, and political organizations (Petitioners) sought mandamus relief from the New Mexico Supreme Court to order the Secretary to stop and make no further efforts to reinstate the straight-ticket option on grounds that she did not possess authority to do so. "Whether straight-ticket voting shall once more be a ballot option in general elections in New Mexico is a policy question for our Legislature. The Legislature cannot delegate election policy determinations." The Court concluded the Secretary’s efforts without legislative approval violated separation of powers principles and was unlawful. The petition for writ of mandamus was therefore granted. View "Unite New Mexico v. Oliver" on Justia Law

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Defendant Nathaniel Yazzie entered a conditional plea of no contest to attempt to commit negligent child abuse following the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress. Defendant moved to suppress all of the evidence gathered after Officer William Temples of the Farmington, New Mexico Police Department entered his unlocked apartment without a warrant in response to a welfare check. This entry, defendant argued, violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The State argued the entry was reasonable under the emergency assistance doctrine. By this opinion, the New Mexico Supreme Court revisited the circumstances under which an officer may make a warrantless entry into a home under the emergency assistance doctrine. Relying on cases interpreting the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the New Mexico Court held that in New Mexico v. Ryon, 108 P.3d 1032, warrantless entry is reasonable under the emergency assistance doctrine when (1) law enforcement officers “have reasonable grounds to believe that there is an emergency at hand and an immediate need for assistance for the protection of life or property;” (2) the officer's primary motivation for the search is a “strong sense of emergency” and not “to arrest a suspect or to seize evidence[;]” and (3) the officers have some reasonable basis, approximating probable cause, to connect the emergency to the area to be searched. The U.S. Supreme Court clarified the doctrine, focusing on the objective reasonableness of the officer's actions and did not include a subjective component. Applying this approach, the New Mexico Court concluded the officer's warrantless entry in this case was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, reversing the Court of Appeals which concluded otherwise. View "New Mexico v. Yazzie" on Justia Law

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Defendant Andrew Romero appealed his convictions arising from the shooting death of Rio Rancho Police Officer Gregg Nigel Benner during a traffic stop. Defendant was convicted of first-degree murder; two counts of tampering with evidence; shooting at or from a motor vehicle; conspiracy to commit armed robbery; aggravated fleeing a law enforcement officer; and concealing identity. The sentencing jury found aggravating circumstances in Defendant’s first-degree murder conviction because Defendant murdered Officer Benner when Officer Benner was acting in the lawful discharge of an official duty and Defendant knew Officer Benner to be a peace officer at the time of the crime. The trial court sentenced Defendant to life in prison without the possibility of parole plus sixty years. Defendant appealed directly to the New Mexico Supreme Court, raising eleven issues. The Supreme Court affirmed all of Defendant’s convictions except for his conviction of shooting at or from a motor vehicle, which was vacated on double jeopardy grounds. View "New Mexico v. Romero" on Justia Law