Search and Seizure Rights – Who Can Assert Them?

The New Mexico Court of Appeals addressed an interesting search and seizure issue in the case of State v. Silvas. The case dealt with a couple of other issues but the threshold issue was the 4th Amendment argument made by the defendant for pretextual car stop.

Interestingly, the pretextual stop did not involve the defendant or his vehicle. Instead, it involved an individual who purchased drugs from the defendant. So the issue arose as to whether a defendant could assert 4th Amendment rights over the illegal stop of a third person when that stop ultimately led to the defendant‘s arrest and conviction.

The short answer is no, the Court of appeals found that the defendant lacked standing to assert the 4th Amendment rights of the third person. Only after addressing this issue did the court get to the remaining issues.

This case began when police officers began monitoring drug activity at a motel. The officers believed that a drug deal took place in the defendant‘s motel room, and an officer followed the alleged buyer from the motel. The alleged buyer left the motel as a passenger in a vehicle. The officer “looked for probable cause to pull the car over,” according to the court, and finally pulled the car over when the driver failed to use a turn signal. The driver was issued a warning, no evidence was seized from the car, and the alleged buyer returned to her motel room. Officers tried to obtain a search warrant to search the alleged buyer‘s motel room, but before they got the warrant, the alleged buyer emerged with methamphetamine and told the police she bought it earlier from the defendant in his motel room, the same room that the officers had been monitoring previously.

While waiting for a warrant, officers forced their way into the defendant‘s motel room. The defendant was gone, and the officers didn‘t seize any evidence. The defendant was arrested three days later and charged with trafficking a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit trafficking.

The defendant was convicted on both counts. On appeal, the defendant raised four issues: 1) the pretextual stop of the car carrying the alleged buyer produced evidence that the court should have suppressed, 2) his hotel room was searched without a warrant and any evidence obtained should have been suppressed, 3) the defendant should have gotten a new trial after the State failed to disclose a post-arrest interview between the defendant and the police, and 4) the Wharton‘s Rule barred a conspiracy conviction in this case.

The Court of Appeals first addressed the issue of the pretextual stop. The Court explained that a pretextual stop is one in which an officer has reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that a traffic offense has occurred, but instead of stopping the car because of that traffic offense alone, the officer has stopped the car as a “pretense to pursue a hunch” of some other illegal activity.

The Court explained that the key question here was whether the defendant had standing to ask the court to suppress evidence related to a pretextual stop, since he wasn‘t in the car and had no possessory interest in it. The Court looked to a prior New Mexico Court of Appeals case, State v. Chapman. In Chapman, the Court explained that Fourth Amendment rights (which related to searches and seizures) couldn‘t be vicariously asserted. In other words, only the person who is directly affected can claim a Fourth Amendment violation. The Court reasoned that, because the defendant in this case wasn‘t a driver or a passenger of the car, and since he had no possessory interest in the car, his Fourth Amendment claim amount to “a vicarious assertion.” As such, the Court decided that the district court didn‘t err when it denied the defendant‘s motion to suppress evidence from the pretextual stop.

The Court next addressed the defendant‘s claim that the warrantless search of his motel room was illegal and that evidence from that search should have been suppressed. While no evidence was collected, the defendant argued that his right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure was “so egregious” that the Court should craft “some form of remedy.” The Court explained that it would only find that there was reversible error if the defendant suffered some kind of prejudice. Since no evidence was collected, the defendant didn‘t suffer any prejudice. As such, the district court didn‘t err when it denied the defendant‘s motion to suppress.

The Court next addressed the issue of the police-taped recording of the defendant while he was in custody. The Court looked to the trial transcript and noted that the audio recording “turned up after trial.” At that point, it was provided to the defendant. The defendant filed a motion for a new trial; the State followed a response about 15 days later. Three days later, the district court entered the defendant‘s judgment and sentence. The district court never officially denied the defendant‘s motion for a new trial, but the Court of Appeals explained that the decision to enter a judgment and sentence seemed to “indirectly deny the motion.”

The Court explained that it would only reverse a district court‘s denial of a motion for a new trial if there has been a “manifest abuse of discretion.” An abuse of discretion typically describes a situation in which there‘s a ruling that‘s “clearly against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances of the case.” The Court made clear that the facts of this case didn‘t rise to that high level. As a result, the Court turned to a three-part test it uses to determine whether the loss of evidence in a case (in this case, the recorded interview) can be considered reversible error. The Court reasoned that the first part of the test wasn‘t met, since the State didn‘t breach a duty or intentionally deprive the defendant of that evidence. In short, there was no evidence that the State acted in bad faith. Additionally, the third part of the test wasn‘t met since the defendant couldn‘t prove that he was prejudiced by the misplacement of the interview evidence. In brief, the defendant would need to show that he wasn‘t able to receive a fair trial without the missing evidence. Since he couldn‘t do that, he didn‘t prove prejudice, and the Court decided that the district court didn‘t abuse its discretion when it denied the defendant‘s motion for a new trial.

Finally, the Court turned to the defendant‘s last argument, which concerned his conspiracy conviction. The defendant claimed that Wharton‘s Rule should apply, which states that “an agreement by two persons to commit a particular crime cannot be prosecuted as a conspiracy when the particular crime is of such a nature as to necessarily require the participation of two persons for its commission.” In short, in certain cases where there has been a conspiracy charge, Wharton‘s Rule applies to say that a conspiracy charge is actually misplaced.

The Court explained that Wharton‘s Rule applies if two situations apply: 1) only the two parties to the agreement are involved in the crime, and the consequences of the crime only affect them, and 2) the criminal agreement between those two parties isn‘t likely “to pose the sort of threat to society that the law of conspiracy was designed to avert.” The Court looked to prior cases in which Wharton‘s Rule has been applied and in cases where it hasn‘t. Notably, when two people are involved in a conspiracy to distribute drugs, Wharton‘s Rule doesn‘t apply. However, the Court reasoned that the current case is most like those situations in which Wharton‘s Rule did apply. The Court explained that in this case, there weren‘t multiple drug purchasers–only the alleged buyer. In this case, the Court reasoned that because there was a single drug seller (the defendant) and a single buyer, the two parts of the Wharton‘s Rule test were met. As such, the Court determined that it was “fundamental error to impose a conspiracy conviction” in addition to the “trafficking by possession with intent to distribute” charge.

As such, the Court ultimately upheld the defendant‘s trafficking conviction but reversed his conspiracy conviction.


Related Reading:
Efficiency No Grounds for Search & Seizure Exception
Drug Sniffing Dogs and the 4th Amendment

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