In State v. Smith, the New Mexico Supreme Court addressed a somewhat rare appeal of a metropolitan court case. This case is unusual in that it stems from a metro court misdemeanor conviction that was then appealed three times to get to the Court–twice by the defendant and once by the State. Concluding that the metro court had erred in denying the defendant’s request for a jury instruction on unlawful conduct, it reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial.
This case arises out of a fight between a couple. The fight began at a bar, but eventually moved to the couple’s shared apartment. In the course of obtaining his keys (which the girlfriend had taken), the defendant pushed his girlfriend to the ground. She called emergency services as the defendant was leaving. Because emergency services asked for the defendant’s license plate, the girlfriend followed him out and stood behind his car to get the information. She did not move out of his way as the car backed up, and the car contacted her arm. Based on the pushing and the contact with the car, the state charged defendant with battery against a household member.
One element of this charge is that the use of force must be “unlawful.” The defendant argued that the state had failed to prove unlawfulness because he had been lawfully attempting to access his own apartment and to leave it. He also sought a jury instruction that the State was required to prove unlawfulness. The court denied the instruction, and the defendant was convicted. He appealed to the second judicial, which affirmed, and to the Court of Appeals, which reversed. The State then appealed to the Supreme Court.
On appeal, the issue was whether the metro court erred in denying the instruction on unlawfulness. Generally, a trial court is required to instruct a jury on all the essential elements of a crime on which the jury must pass judgment. The court had previously held that there is a duty to instruct the jury on the State’s burden to prove unlawfulness beyond a reasonable doubt. There are two exceptions to this requirement: (1) if the instruction contains language synonymous with unlawfulness, and (2) if there is no evidence of unlawful behavior. The State had consistently argued that the second exception applied.
Battery against a household member consists of the unlawful, intentional touching or application of force to the person of a household member, when done in a rude, insolent or angry manner. Whether the touching was “unlawful” is an essential element of this crime. In this case, unlawfulness was the only element that the defendant disputed that the State could not prove. But the defendant was entitled to the instruction if there was even slight evidence to show his behavior was lawful.
The Court found that there was sufficient evidence to require the instruction. The evidence showed that the defendant has a possessory interest in the apartment and that, despite that, the girlfriend tried to keep him from entering it. It showed that she initiated the confrontation by pushing him when he tried to enter. The court noted that this behavior itself could constitute a crime: deprivation of property of a household member. And, when the defendant tried to leave, she again initiated by stepping behind his car as he was backing out of his space. The Court found this to be enough to call into question whether defendant’s behavior was unlawful.
The Court rejected the State’s argument that the defendant was required to prove any of these defenses before he was entitled to an instruction. Reiterating the standard of review, the Court held that the defendant only needed to show evidence to call into question whether he used unlawful force. Because he had done so, the metropolitan court erred by failing to give an unlawfulness instruction in this case. The Court therefore remanded to the metro court for a new trial.
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