The New Mexico Supreme Court case of State v. Cobrera deals with an important aspect of criminal law. The case concerns the evidence needed in a case involving the criminal damage to property. In short, the Court had to determine whether the prosecution has to present evidence of the age and condition of a property in order to prove its monetary value.
The case began when the defendant broke into a house where her estranged husband and his girlfriend were living. Inside the house, the defendant damaged property. Specifically, she “slashed upholstered couches and chairs with a knife,” and she smashed many items with a baseball bat, which were unusable after the damage. The items belonged to the husband‘s girlfriend.
The girlfriend testified about the value of most of these items when she purchased them, but she couldn‘t remember the purchase prices of some of the items. She also didn‘t indicate how old the items were.
The defendant was convicted of criminal damage to property worth more than $1,000. The defendant appealed, and the Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, explaining that the trial court hadn‘t presented enough evidence about the value of the property. Specifically, the Court of Appeals indicated that the jury hadn‘t had particular information “about the age or condition of the goods prior to the crime” or the “cost to purchase equivalent replacement for the goods.”
The New Mexico Supreme Court first looked to the specific language of the statute, Section 30-15-1. It explained that the statute doesn‘t specify how a court should determine the “dollar value of the property damage.”
The Court then looked to previous case law that had interpreted the statute. The Court referenced two different methods for determining the value of property damage. The first method is the “diminution in the value of the property due to the damage,” also known as the “before and after value.” The second method is through “cost of repair or replacement, whichever is less.”
The Court explained that, under the second method, the State doesn‘t have to prove the value of the property immediately prior to its damage. Instead, the State could introduce information such as advertisements to show the current cost of similar items. In fact, the Court of Appeals had previously held in another case that evidence of an item‘s purchase price can establish the cost of its replacement.
Further, the Court looked to other case law that held that an owner of personal property can testify about the value of his or her property, and that testimony is sufficient evidence to establish value.
The Court reasoned that, because the State had introduced evidence that the purchase price of the damaged items was greater than $1,000, and it had also introduced evidence that the items were damaged beyond repair, it had provided sufficient evidence of value according to the statute. In other words, the State produced enough evidence to convict the defendant of the charges.
In addition, the Court reasoned that the jury could have drawn on its “own knowledge and life experience” in determining value since it saw photos of a large number of common household items that had been irreparably damaged. In short, the jury could have inferred that the cost of the damaged items totaled more than $1,000 and that they would have to be replaced entirely.
Thus, the Court held that in cases where “common household items have been irreparably damaged,” the State only needs to provide evidence of the original purchase price of the items. In other words, the State doesn‘t need to present evidence of a property‘s age and condition to prove its monetary value.
One might now ask, why is it important? For this particular case, it is very important. Under NMSA §30-15-1, criminal damage to property is a petty misdemeanor unless the value of the property exceeds $1000 in which case it is a 4th degree felony.
On a broader note, the minimal proof requirements set forth for proving value are somewhat troubling. However, the defense is free to and should offer proof to contrary showing that the property had no such value.