Execution of a Warrant by Traffic Stop Does Not Violate Rule Against Pretextual Stops

In New Mexico, it is pretty well established that a traffic stop may not be used as pretext for the investigation of other unrelated crimes. This rule applies even where the traffic stop is legitimate.

Ochoa’s Pretext Rule

The 2009 New Mexico Court of Appeals case of State v. Ochoa established this “pretext rule.” The rule offers significant protections for New Mexico’s citizens preventing practices which might otherwise be used abusively for fishing type investigations.

These investigations might be wholesale intrusions on citizen’s privacy and 4th Amendment rights. They might also be based upon the hunches of officers. Hunches alone may not be the basis for detaining a citizen. Little imagination is required to see how these hunches might be used in a discriminatory manner.

The question then becomes what is pretextual and what is not. In the recent case of State v. Peterson, the defendant was stopped on an outstanding warrant which was discovered during investigation of other crimes. During the traffic stop and subsequent arrest on the valid warrant, the officers discovered heroin and crack cocaine for which the defendant was charged.

The defendant argued that the traffic stop was pretextual and that the evidence of heroin and cocaine should be suppressed under Ochoa. The Court of Appeals disagreed finding that Ochoa did not apply in the case of validly executed warrant.

The Pretext Rule Does Not Apply to the Legal Execution of Warrants

A Traffic Stop is a Detention

The Court discussed the illegal search and seizure protections of the 4th Amendment and Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution. The Court recognized that a traffic stop is a detention constituting a seizure, albeit temporary in most cases, of the driver. That stop must be based upon reasonable suspicion.

Even if the stop is based upon reasonable suspicion, which is not too difficult to find for an enterprising officer, it must not be used as pretext. In this case, the stop was arguably pretextual due to the ongoing investigation of drug activity. However, the outstanding warrant for the Court negates the application of Ochoa.

Pretextual Traffice Stop May Not be Based Merely Upon a Hunch

The Court cited Ochoa for the definition of a pretextual stop to differentiate this situation from a more clear-cut Ochoa case as follows:

“a detention supportable by reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that a traffic offense has occurred, but is executed as a pretense to pursue a ‘hunch,’ a different more serious investigative agenda for which there is no reasonable suspicion or probable cause.”

The Court recognized the fact that there will almost always be a basis for a traffic stop which can lead to abusive police tactics:

“As Ochoa recognized, the traffic code is so extensive and detailed that ‘virtually the entire driving population is in violation of some regulation as soon as they get in their cars, or shortly thereafter.’… Because almost all drivers will violate the traffic code at some point during even the briefest drive, Ochoa’s concern was that police officers had essentially unfettered discretion to detain someone whom they were investigating by simply following the person until a traffic law was violated…”

 The Court differentiated the Peterson case to Ochoa basically holding that the police have the right to execute on a warrant. The fact that there is an ongoing investigation does not render the lawful execution of warrant defective under Ochoa.

This makes some sense since to hold otherwise would render criminal suspects untouchable on existing and legally issued warrants while an unrelated investigation is ongoing. More generally, what does it matter that the warrant was executed by traffic stop as opposed to going to the suspect’s home?

Officer May Have Cause for Stop Independent of Ongoing Investigation

To illustrate the distinction between a pretextual traffic stop and one for the execution of a warrant, the Court stated:

 “The police should not be impeded in the execution of valid arrest warrants, even if, in doing so, they may harbor some hope of discovering evidence of additional crimes. The problem that renders some pretextual stops unconstitutional is not that an officer might subjectively hope to find evidence of a greater offense; the problem arises when an officer would not have been interested in pursuing the lesser offense absent that hope.”

In this case and cases like it, it is clear that an officer would have a independent basis for wanting to execute on a legal warrant.  The execution of the warrant is perfectly justified in its own right and will not be rendered otherwise because of an ongoing investigation.

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