“At the Scene” in Domestic Violence Construed Broadly in New Mexico

Under the misdemeanor arrest rule, a police officer cannot arrest someone on a misdemeanor offense without a warrant unless the officer actually witnessed the crime. There is an exception under New Mexico law for the warrantless arrest in domestic violence cases.

The domestic violence exception to the misdemeanor arrest rule is intended to protect victims of domestic violence. If the rule were strictly construed, victims of domestic violence would be left in potentially dangerous circumstances exposing them to further harm. However, even here, there are limitations to the warrantless arrest of a misdemeanor domestic violence suspect.

Limitations to Domestic Violence Exception

Under the law, NMSA §31-1-7(A):

“A peace officer may arrest a person and take that person into custody without a warrant when the officer is at the scene of a domestic disturbance and has probable cause to believe that the person has committed an assault or a battery upon a household member.”

The “at the scene” requirement recognizes that once the suspect has left the premises, the victim is no longer in immediate danger. Due to the lack of immediate danger, the misdemeanor arrest rule fully applies if the police encounter the suspect at a location other than that of the act of domestic violence.

“At the Scene” of an Act of Domestic Violence

This then leaves the question of how to define “at the scene” of the act of domestic violence. A recent case of the New Mexico Supreme Court, State v. Almanzar , had to address just this issue.

In that case, an act of domestic violence was alleged to have been committed on the New Mexico State Fairgrounds. Following the incident, both the suspect and the alleged victim left the fairgrounds. The suspect went across the street to a convenience store while the alleged victim went across the street to a drug store from which she called the police.

Upon arriving at the convenience store following the victim’s call, the officers identified the suspect. The suspect was placed under arrest for domestic violence. During the search of the suspect, incident to the arrest, the police officers discovered cocaine.

The defendant was then charged with domestic violence and possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute. The defendant moved to suppress the cocaine as illegally seized due to the violation of the misdemeanor arrest rule. The trial judge denied the motion and the defendant was convicted. The New Mexico Court of Appeals overturned, and then the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals.

“In Proximity” to the “Scene” May be Sufficient

In this case, the New Mexico Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeals took too narrow of a view regarding the location of the incident.  The Supreme Court found instead that the fact that the defendant had simply crossed the street was insufficient to trigger the misdemeanor arrest rule since the defendant remained in close proximity to the scene.

Search Incident to Arrest

Before getting to the issue of whether the misdemeanor arrest rule was violated, the Court recognized right to search a suspect who has been placed under arrest:

“One of the most firmly established exceptions to the warrant requirement is “the right on the part of the government, always recognized under English and American law, to search the person of the accused when legally arrested…”

The legality of the search thus depended on the legality of arrest under the exception to the misdemeanor arrest rule. In short, could the suspect be arrested without a warrant despite the fact that he had left the State Fair premises?

Legislative Intent?

The Court stated that the goal was to “to give effect to the Legislature’s intent” and that the statue would not be construed mechanically leading to absurd or unreasonable outcome.

The potential situation was recognized where a defendant might simply leave the abode or residence where an act of domestic violence occurred simply going next door or otherwise to a neighbor’s home. The Court reasoned that this would not trigger the misdemeanor arrest rule and in fact it would defeat the statute’s intent to protect victims of domestic violence.

The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that this same reasoning should not be applied to the Fairgrounds. The Court did some acrobatics to get to the result that more or less equated the situations. In doing so, at least under the facts of this case, the Court ignored the intention of the misdemeanor arrest rule while seemingly stretching the intent of the statute.

In this case, the Fair Grounds were very large. Both the defendant and the victim left the fairgrounds. The victim was actually at a drug store when she made the call. It seems that she was clearly out of harm’s way.  If there was ever a situation where simply going across the street might apply, this would certainly seem to be a good candidate.

“At the Scene” to be Construed Broadly in the Future?

It is now unclear how exactly  to construe “at the scene of a domestic disturbance.” Going across the street is not enough, even in the case of very large public grounds such as the fairgrounds, which encompass well over 200 acres of land.

Does it matter at all how large or what the nature of the property? Are a stadium, a mall, a large ranch, the national forest … all to be construed the same? If so, how far from the scene must the defendant be? Down the street, a different neighborhood, a different part of town?

There are of course extremes, but the definition will undoubtedly be hashed out over time in a case-by-case basis. It is seems a foregone conclusion that law enforcement will take a very broad view of the Court’s ruling while defense attorneys will seek to put tight restrictions on it’s application.  As of now, it is not all that clear where the line will be drawn.

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