Revoked License Provides Reasonable Suspicion for Traffic Stop in New Mexico

The New Mexico Court of Appeals case of State v. Hicks deals with a significant criminal law issue of when a police officer has reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle. Reasonable suspicion in a traffic stop protects against illegal search and seizure most often associated with profiling. Likewise, it is important in the defense of DWI charges as were present in this case.

The case here addressed a narrow case of reasonable suspicion based upon knowledge of the vehicle owner‘s license revocation though it was unknown whether it was in fact the owner driving the vehicle.

The New Mexico Court of Appeals had to determine whether an officer‘s knowledge that the registered owner of a vehicle has a revoked license creates reasonable suspicion, thus permitting the officer to stop the vehicle. In short, does the sole knowledge of a revoked license create reasonable suspicion for a stop?

In this case, the defendant had been driving a motor vehicle in San Juan County, New Mexico. An officer ran the license plates of the vehicle and discovered that the registered owner of the vehicle had a revoked license. Based on that information, the officer stopped the vehicle.

When the officer made contact with the driver, the officer learned that the defendant was in fact the registered owner of the vehicle who had a revoked license, and that the defendant appeared intoxicated.

Prior to the stop, the officer hadn‘t made any effort to determine whether the driver of the vehicle was in fact the registered owner of the vehicle. In other words, the officer had no way of knowing whether the person driving the vehicle was its registered or someone else.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the officer didn‘t have reasonable suspicion to stop him because the officer didn‘t confirm that the defendant was the registered owner of the vehicle prior to stopping him. Had the officer had known that the defendant was the registered owner of the vehicle prior to the stop, it‘s assumed that the officer would have had reasonable suspicion because of his knowledge of the revoked license.

The district court granted the motion to suppress, emphasizing that the New Mexico Constitution provides greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures than the U.S. Constitution. It also indicated that it might have upheld the stop of the officer had the officer simply observed the driver prior to the stop to “determine whether he matched the basic description of the registered owner.”
The Court of Appeals first looked to an earlier case, State v. Candelaria. In that case, the Court ruled that when an officer knows only that a vehicle is registered to a person with a revoked license, the officer has reasonable suspicion for a stop. The defendant argued that his case is different from Candelaria.

The defendant argued that the facts of the Candelaria case showed that the officers in that case not only knew about the owner‘s revoked license, but that they also “observed the vehicle under suspicious circumstances prior to the stop.” The Court of Appeals disagreed with the defendant here, emphasizing that the “suspicious circumstances” didn‘t play into its holding in Candelaria.

The Court also noted that Candelaria was decided under a federal constitutional analysis. Since the district court found for the defendant under the New Mexico Constitution, the Court of Appeals had to examine the defendant‘s rights under the state constitution. In order to turn to the state constitution, the Court of Appeals had to determine if there were “distinctive state characteristics” of the New Mexico Constitution which would allow the Court to diverge from the federal precedent followed in Candelaria. Citing prior case law, the Court explained that the New Mexico Constitution requires reasonable suspicion “based on the particular facts of each case.” In order to do this, it examines the “totality of the circumstances.”

Considering the facts of this case, the Court reasoned first that the requirement of reasonable suspicion always involves some degree of uncertainty. With that in mind, the fact that the officer didn‘t know that the defendant was in fact the owner of the vehicle isn‘t enough to mean that the officer didn‘t have reasonable suspicion. Further, the Court reasoned that requiring police officers to do more than what the officer did here could potentially jeopardize the legitimate law enforcement interest of removing drivers with revoked or suspended licenses from our roadways.”

As such, the Court concluded that the “best and least intrusive way” for the officer to determine if a driver is the registered owner of a vehicle with a revoked license is to conduct an investigatory traffic stop. Therefore, the officer in this case did have sufficient reasonable suspicion, and the Court reversed the district court‘s ruling.

DISCLAIMER

Related Reading:
The 4th Amendment and Police Questioning Beyond Scope of Traffic Stop in New Mexico
Police in New Mexico Have Wide Latitude in Questioning During Traffic Stops
Questioning During Traffic Stop Limited to Basis for the Stop Under New Mexico Law

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