NMSC: Officer’s Training and Experience Can Be the Difference Between Reasonable Suspicion and a “Hunch”

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The New Mexico Supreme Court filed its first case of 2020 last week: State v. Martinez, a 5-0 opinion written by Justice Nakamura. The opinion sets out to clarify the difference between reasonable suspicion and a hunch. In this case, the difference appears to be the training and experience of the officer. What might be a hunch to an ordinary person can be reasonable suspicion to a person trained and familiar with criminal acts.

This case involves what is known as a “Terry stop.” A Terry stop happens when the police briefly stop a person based on a reasonable suspicion. If a court later determines that the police did not have reasonable suspicion for the stop, evidence obtained at the stop can be suppressed (i.e., it will not be admissible at trial).

Background About the Stop

In this case, an officer was watching an Allsups. The officer was quite familiar with this Allsups, where he had purchased drugs numerous times in the past. He saw two men, Crispin and Martinez, pull up to the gas pumps. While the car was at the pumps, a third man got into the rear driver-side seat for several minutes then left. The car then drove to the side of Allsup’s and parked. A woman then entered into the rear driver-side seat for a few minutes and then left. The officer believed he had witnessed two drug transactions.

When Crispin and Martinez drove away, the officer pulled them over to investigate and found drugs, paraphernalia, scales, and money in the car.Martinez sought to suppress this evidence, arguing that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to pull over the car. The district court denied the motion, and Martinez was convicted. On appeal, the court of appeals reversed, concluding that the stop was based on a hunch, not reasonable suspicion, and the evidence should have been suppressed.

Experience and Training Matter

Review of a Terry stop follows a two-step process. First, the court reviews the underlying factual findings for substantial evidence. Then, the court reviews the legal decision de novo. In this case, the underlying facts were not disputed, so only the legal question of whether those facts supported reasonable suspicion (or were merely a “hunch”) remained on appeal.

The Courts have found it difficult to articulate a standard for when there is reasonable suspicion. The starting point is that the court must take the totality of the circumstances into account. Based upon that whole picture the detaining officers must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.

Here, the totality of the circumstances included three main factors. First, the officer’s training and experience with drug investigations. Second, the conduct the officer observed. And third, the fact that this particular Allsup’s was a high-crime area where drug transactions were known to occur.

Although the Court discussed each of these factors, it appears to have believed that the court of appeals had erred in its evaluation of the first: the officer’s training and experience. And, in particular, it was concerned with one of the most important concepts in appellate law: the standard of review.

The record showed that the officer had personally purchased drugs at that particular Allsup’s over a dozen times in the past, and had twenty years of experience in drug enforcement. On appeal, the facts are viewed in the light most favorable to the result below. The district court had emphasized how the officer’s experience and training informed his view of the circumstances. In contrast, the court of appeals discounted it as a hunch, noting that the behavior could have been innocent. The Court found that it was this error that had prompted the court of appeals to wrongly determine that the officer had not provided specific facts to justify his suspicion and his decision to perform the Terry stop.

Although the Court also found that the other factors supported reasonable suspicion, it appears that the root of the error it saw was in the standard of review: that the court of appeals did not give sufficient weight to the officer’s training. In a Terry analysis, when the record shows relevant facts about the officer’s training and experience, those facts can be the difference between a hunch and reasonable suspicion.

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