The New Mexico Supreme Court decided State v. Barela this week. Affirming the court of appeals, the Court held that felony battery against a household member can serve as an underlying felony for purposes of the Habitual Offender Act. Justice Bacon wrote for a unanimous Court.
In this case, the defendant pleaded guilty to battery against a household member, a crime he had been convicted of twice before. Ordinarily, this is a misdemeanor. However, under Section 30-3-17(A), a third conviction for domestic battery is a fourth-degree felony.
In addition, the defendant had previously been convicted of another felony. As a result, the court applied the Habitual Offender Act, which requires the court to add an additional year to a non-capital felony sentence when the offender has previously been convicted of a felony.
The defendant appealed to the court of appeals. Relying on State v. Anaya, a prior supreme court case that prohibited use of the Habitual Offender Act in DWI cases, Defendant argued that the Habitual Offender Act did not apply to domestic battery, either. In a divided opinion, the court of appeals affirmed.
To decide this case, the Court examined the battery against a household member statute and the Habitual Offender Act. It found both to be unambiguous.
The Court dispensed with the battery statute in a single paragraph. By its simple terms, the statute established two escalated classes of felonies. A third offense is a fourth-degree felony, and all subsequent offenses are third-degree felonies.
The analysis of the Habitual Offender Act was similarly straightforward. The Act adds a year to non-capital felony sentences when the defendant has a prior felony conviction. Prior felony convictions are expressly defined to include any felony committed in New Mexico except for felony DWI. Since Defendant’s prior non-capital felony conviction was not for felony DWI, the statute applied.
Having determined that the statutes had been correctly applied, the Court needed to distinguish its prior holding in Anaya. In Anaya, a 1997 case, the Court had held that the Habitual Offender Act did not apply to felony DWI convictions. Although the Barela opinion does not explain this, the Habitual Offender Act did not expressly exclude felony DWI convictions until 2003.
As a result, the analysis in 1997 was quite different. Both the DWI statute and the Habitual Offender Act were silent as to whether enhancement was appropriate. The Court viewed the two laws as ambiguous and applied the rule of lenity to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the defendant. The Court found it particularly important that DWI was (in its view) a nonviolent offense. (New Mexico has one of the highest death rates from DWI in the United States.)
Here, Defendant argued that the Court should use the same logic from Anaya to find that domestic battery could not be an underlying felony for the Habitual Offender Act. But the 2003 amendment to the Habitual Offender Act made that a non-starter. Now that felony DWI was expressly excluded, the ambiguity that caused the Anaya court to invoke the rule of lenity was no longer present. The Court also noted that unlike DWI, battery of a household member is in fact a violent crime, making Anaya distinguishable.
Because the Habitual Offender Act has since been modified to codify the holding of Anaya, the reasoning that applied in 1997 no longer makes sense today. Now, to exclude a crime the scope of the Habitual Offender Act, the legislature would likely have to add that crime to the exclusion in the definition of prior convictions. At the end of the day, this is a fairly narrow holding, but important to know if you are doing criminal defense.
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