Warrant to Search Everyone on Premises Generally Invalid in New Mexico

The New Mexico Court of Appeals case State v. Light presents an important criminal law issue concerning illegal search and seizure.

The Court had to determine whether the district court erred when it determined that a warrant was “impermissibly broad” in allowing police officers to search “all persons” who were located on specific premises.

In short, can a warrant allow officers to search “all persons” at a location where illegal activity might be taking place?

According to the facts as stated by the Court, the case began when police began conducting an investigation of the owner of a theater for alleged drug trafficking. The police had information that the theater owner had been hosting rave parties, where he had been selling and distributing ecstasy and marijuana, as well as permitting underage alcohol consumption.

When the local police learned that the theater owner planned to host a rave party, they sent a law enforcement officer to attend the party and to report back. The officer observed underage people drinking alcohol, people smoking marijuana, and people taking pills. He also encountered people who indicated that they were taking ecstasy and that marijuana and ecstasy would be for sale later. The officer also purchased cocaine from a male in the lobby. When the theater owner entered the property, the officer saw him passing out “jello shots,” and the theater owner later gave the officer five ecstasy pills.

The officer reported his observations to a second officer who had remained outside the theater. The officer gave no names, except for the name of the theater owner and three other males. The second officer decided that there was probably cause for a warrant to search the theater. He secured the warrant, which authorized a search of the theater owner, his residence, the theater, and vehicles found on those properties, and any persons found on those properties. It also authorized the officers to seize any drugs, paraphernalia, and anything containing the jello shot substance.

When the officers executed the warrant, they found approximately seventy-five to one hundred people inside the theater. They lined everyone up and wouldn‘t let them leave until all property in their possession had been searched.

The Defendant attended the party. When she tried to leave, the officers indicated that they‘d need to search her purse. The officers had no particularized suspicion about the contents of the Defendant‘s purse. In other words, the officers had no reason to suspect that the purse contained contraband since it had no odors and none of its contents seemed suspicious, and the Defendant didn‘t consent to this search. Inside her purse, an officer found a container of methamphetamine, and the Defendant was charged with one count of possession of methamphetamine.

At the district court level, the Defendant moved to suppress this evidence, arguing that the warrant was too broad in allowing the police to detain and search “all persons” at the theater. The district court agreed and granted the Defendant‘s motion to suppress. The State appealed.

In reviewing the district court‘s ruling, the Court of Appeals first looked to the probable cause and particularity requirements of a warrant. In order for warrants to be valid, they must first establish probable cause for a search, which the court defines as “more than a suspicion or possibility but less than a certainty of proof.” They must also specify “with particularity” the “place to be searched and the items to be seized.”

The Defendant contends that the “all person” warrant under which she was searched was invalid because the police didn‘t have probable cause to search her, and the warrant didn‘t “show a particularized suspicion as to her.”

The Court went on to explain that the majority position on an “all persons” warrants is that it‘s valid as long as the police have probable cause that “any and all persons on the premises are either engaged in criminal activity or possess any of the evidence sought in the search.”

The Court made clear that it didn‘t need to decide whether an “all persons” warrant is always invalid (as the minority position holds), since even under the majority position, the specific warrant in this case was invalid.

In this case, the Court explained, there was nothing in the officer‘s affidavit that tied “every person in the theater to the criminal behavior taking place there.” The Court went on to explain that the officer never identified or specifically described most of the occupants, and he never even reported seeing the Defendant.

The Court went on to explain that, generally, “all persons” warrants that authorize the search of a public place usually are declared invalid “due to the absence of probable cause to believe that all persons present in the establishment were involved in the criminal activity.” The Court reasoned that it had no reason to believe that the only purpose of the rave was to engage in illegal activity, and it emphasized that “completely innocent people” were free to enter the theater. As a result, the Court concluded that it was “not convinced that the affidavit contained sufficient information to establish probable cause that every person present was engaged in illegal activity.”

The Court also had to determine whether the search of the Defendant‘s purse was illegal, since it was on the property included in the warrant. The Court reasoned that, because there was nothing in the police affidavit or in the officers‘ testimony that connected the Defendant‘s purse “to the theater or to the illegal activity occurring there,” the officers weren‘t authorized to search the purse or to seize any of its contents.

As such, the Court affirmed the district court‘s decision and ruled that it properly suppressed the evidence against the Defendant.

DISCLAIMER

Related Readings:
Warrant Obtained By Telephone Not Permitted In New Mexico
The 4th Amendment and Police Questioning Beyond Scope of Traffic Stop in New Mexico
Warrantless Searches Reasonable Under the Plain View Doctrine

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