Evidence Seized Under the Pretext of a Traffic Stop is Inadmissible

It is unlawful in New Mexico for a police officer to stop you under the pretext of a traffic violation for the purposes of investigating another unrelated crime.

The law of New Mexico goes further in protecting its citizens against unlawful search and seizure under these circumstances than federal law under the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Whren v. United States.

Under Whren, it is allowable for a police officer to stop someone under the pretext of a traffic stop in order to investigate them for something entirely different, such as possession or distribution of narcotics. New Mexico through State v. Ochoa recognizes the danger of allowing such searches.

In the Ochoa case, the police officer suspected an individual of possession of narcotics. He lacked any verifiable proof, and he lacked a valid warrant to search the vehicle. Due to his hunch, and despite the lack of a warrant or other evidence of possession, he called the vehicle in on a traffic violation, and the car was stopped by another officer.

Indeed, there were drugs in the vehicle.

The Court in Ochoa recognizes that due to the huge volume of possible traffic offenses, we are all in violation of at least one traffic law at any given time. Allowing a police officer to stop someone to investigate an unrelated crime under the pretext of a traffic violation would basically nullify our rights against illegal search and seizure while in our cars. We would be at the mercy of the whim of any particular officer while in our vehicles.

Police officers would be free to search our vehicles at their leisure since they would need only articulate any one of hundreds of possible traffic violations. It would not take much of an imagination to come up with a reason to stop a vehicle. There would be no protection at all from the search of our vehicles. Every citizen, both guilty and innocent, would be subject to abusive police practices. The right to privacy in our vehicles would have little meaning.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court of New Mexico recognized the potential for abusive police practices under Whren. The court laid out some guidelines. The Court in Ochoa stated that in determining whether or not the stop was pretextual, the Courts should consider the totality of the circumstances, the credibility of witnesses, and the weight of the evidence.

The totality of the circumstances includes a consideration of the both the objective reasonableness of the officer‘s actions and the subjective intent or what the Court described as the “real reason” for the stop.

The burden of proving pretext is on the defendant. However, if it is found that the stop was not reasonable from its inception, any evidence discovered during the illegal stop will be excluded.


Related Reading:
Pat-Down Search in New Mexico is a Protective Search for Officer Safety Not a Search for Evidence
Unlawful Search & Seizure Under the 4th Amendment
Your Home is Safe from Unlawful Search & Seizure in New Mexico

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