This week, the New Mexico Court of Appeals announced its opinion in State of New Mexico v. Scharff (Onion No. 2012-NMCA-087), upholding the decision of the San Juan County District Court.
In the case, the defendant was arrested for DUI after she was stopped for illegally pulling out of a parking lot. The defendant claimed that the arresting officer used a pretext, or false reason for pulling her over, and therefore the evidence found during the stop should not have been used against her in her case.
The defendant was pulled over as she left a bar parking lot, because she stopped her car with her wheels on the sidewalk that crossed the parking lot exit, rather than stopping before the sidewalk. In New Mexico, there is a law that states that vehicles “emerging from an alley, driveway or building shall stop such vehicle prior to driving onto a sidewalk or the sidewalk area extending across any alleyway or driveway…” The court said that a parking lot exit is considered a “driveway” for the statute.
The arresting police officer saw the defendant stop with her wheels on the sidewalk, look for and yield to oncoming traffic, and then proceed into traffic. The officer then made a U-turn, stopped the driver, discovered the smell of alcohol, and made the arrest for DUI. The officer was specifically on the Farmington DUI patrol that evening.
The court of appeals held that the stop and arrest was valid, because the defendant did break the law that required her to stop before, not on the sidewalk. Also, the court stated that even though the defendant said the stop was based on a pretext, she did not sufficiently prove it.
While this sounds like a radical new law that will allow the police to make stops for small, insignificant crimes, this is not a new concept. In the case of Whren v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “any traffic offense committed by a driver was a legitimate legal basis for a stop.”
This means that if the police suspect a driver of being drunk or having drugs in the car, but do not have a reason to stop them for those crimes, they can stop them for having a burned out tail or license plate light, with the hope that the stop will give them enough evidence to make an arrest for the alcohol or drugs.
The real lesson to be learned from this is that many times (if not most) issues like DUI, possession of marijuana, or driving on a revoked license will come from a much more minor issue, like making a right hand turn into the middle lane of traffic or stopping with your bumper extending into a crosswalk.