Police in New Mexico Have Wide Latitude in Questioning During Traffic Stops

A 2011 New Mexico Supreme Court case highlights that police officers have wide discretion to ask questions during a traffic stop as long as the questions are supported by reasonable suspicion.

In State of New Mexico v. Leyva, the New Mexico Supreme Court upheld the validity of an officer‘s questions during a routine traffic stop for speeding where he ultimately discovered drugs in the vehicle. Immediately prior to the stop, the officer allegedly observed the defendant lean toward the passenger seat for approximately 10 seconds.

Then, during the stop, the officer asked defendant if there was anything else in the car that he needed to know about. In response, the defendant volunteered that there was marijuana under the passenger seat. Continuing his search of the vehicle, the officer also found methamphetamine.

In a subsequent criminal proceeding, the defendant argued that her constitutional rights were violated by the officer‘s questioning and subsequent search.

Under both the U.S. Constitution and the New Mexico Constitution, the defendant asserted that she had been subjected to an unreasonable search and seizure. She argued that the questions were not justified by the initial stop, The defendant argued that the illegally gathered evidence should be suppressed. The exclusionary rule holds that when an officer engages in conduct that violates one‘s constitutional rights (such as an unreasonable search or seizure), the “fruits” of that search (i.e. what is found) cannot be used in a criminal proceeding.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution sets minimum standards for protection from unreasonable searches and seizes. Accordingly, states are free to guarantee protections beyond those found in the U.S. Constitution but cannot require any less. Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution provides greater protection to citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures, as interpreted by New Mexico courts.

Under State v. Duran, the New Mexico Supreme Court held that all questions during traffic stops must be either: (1) reasonably related to the initial reason for the stop or (2) supported by independent and articulable reasonable suspicion. Applying this two-prong standard to this case, the court held that the questions asked were not unreasonable. Although the officer‘s questions did not pass the first prong, the officer did have a reasonable suspicion based on her actions that Leyva had hidden something in the car. Therefore, it was not unreasonable for the officer to question her about weapons or other contraband in the vehicle.

The important issue in this case was the officer‘s claim that she saw the defendant act in a suspicious manner immediately prior to the stop. The officer‘s ability to articulate an independent reason for the suspicion was, according to the court, enough to justify the questioning.

Though the police do have fairly broad discretion in asking questions during a traffic stop, there are limits. If those limits are not respected, the evidence will be suppressed. These are issues that should you find yourself in this situation, you would do well to discuss with an experienced criminal defense attorney.


Related Reading:
Questioning During Traffic Stop Limited to Basis for the Stop Under New Mexico Law
4th Amendment and the Plain View Doctrine
Passenger Rights Against Illegal Search & Seizure in Routine Traffic Stops
Do Minors Have Broader Rights Under the 4th Amendment Than Adults?

Collins & Collins, P.C.
Albuquerque Attorneys

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