The New Mexico Court of Appeals revisited the issue of whether a confession by a defendant standing alone is sufficient for a conviction. State v. Owelicio is the first opportunity the Court has had to address the rules regarding confessions in a DWI case. The Court took some great logical leaps in order to uphold the DWI conviction.
The facts of the case were somewhat muddled but can be boiled down pretty succinctly. Basically, an Albuquerque police officer came upon a car on the side of the road with 2 flat tires and a man changing the tires. The officer pulled over and upon smelling alcohol on the man‘s breath asked if he had been drinking and driving. The man denied drinking and driving and said his friend had been driving and had left the scene to go get assistance.
There was also a female present who was in the passenger seat. The dash-cam video showed her getting into the passenger seat as the officer approached. The female claimed that she had been driving. The man and the cop both told her she was lying, but she insisted. Finally, she was arrested, charged and convicted for DWI.
The rule is generally that a confession alone is not enough in the absence of other evidence of the crime. The Court addressed cases both from New Mexico and beyond regarding the circumstances under which a confession must be corroborated to stand alone.
The Court went through a rather lengthy analysis of the corpus delicti rule. Basically, the corpus delicti rule will allow the confession to stand in the absence of corroborating evidence because the existence of the crime itself is enough corroboration without necessarily identifying the perpetrator of the crime. The examples used by the court, and a common application of the rule, included homicide cases where the circumstances of the death and the condition of the corpse made it apparent that there had been a homicide. In these cases, the existence of the crime was clear and certain. The confession of the defendant was therefore supported by the clear existence of a crime.
To the contrary, the court noted a U.S. Supreme Court case where it found no such corpus delecti in a tax evasion case. In the 1954 US Supreme Court case of Smith v. United States, the court found the corpus delecti missing because the crime of tax evasion has no ” “tangible injury which can be isolated as a corpus delicti.”The same holds true of DWI in most cases in the absence of an accident.
The Court in Owelicio went to great lengths to uphold the DWI conviction first stating no corroboration was needed due to corpus delecti and then suggesting that there was other corroborating evidence standing in place of the corpus delicti. In conclusion, the Court stated that it was clear that the crime of DWI had been committed by someone and thus provided the foundation upon which to admit the defendant‘s confession in the absence of other corroborating evidence.
The Court in fact repeatedly suggested that there was corroborating evidence. The Court alluded to a corroborating witness who was the defendant‘s sister. However, it is later stated by the Court that the sister saw the defendant leave the bar where they had been drinking in the passenger seat. She stated further that she had been following the car in which her sister was traveling until they became separated. Thus, she provided no corroborating evidence at all that her sister had been the driver.
To the contrary, the sister, the man changing the blown tires, and even the cop provided evidence that she had not been driving. The Court ignored this and instead hung its argument on the corpus delicti rule saying it was obvious that someone had committed DWI. But the facts do not support this conclusion. DWI is far different matter than murder where there is a dead body involved. DWI is very different and there is nothing that would suggest a DWI in this case or most others in the absence of an intoxicated driver behind the wheel of a car.
What is it exactly about this case that made it obvious that someone had committed DWI? Two flat tires? A man who smelled of alcohol changing the tires? A denial by the man that he had been driving? A suggestion that someone else had been driving and left the scene? A clearly intoxicated female in the passenger seat taking responsibility for the DWI with no other evidence that she had ever been in the driver‘s seat? The cop who suggested she was lying and that he did not believe her? The man changing the tire who said she was lying? The sister saying she last saw her traveling in the car in the passenger seat?
None of these provide the corpus delicti required under prior caselaw. Instead, the Court redefined corpus delecti in order to uphold the conviction. After all, somebody needs to be punished for the DWI even if it is the wrong person. Let‘s hope this case sees its way to the New Mexico Supreme Court.