Friday, September 09, 2016

Motor Vehicles, Liability Insurance and the Officer's Mobile Data Terminal

This post examines a recent opinion from the Supreme Court of New Mexico:  State v. Yazzie, 376 P.3d 858 (Supreme Court of New Mexico 2016).  The court begins the opinion by explaining that the
New Mexico Mandatory Financial Responsibility Act (MFRA), New Mexico Statutes Annotated 1978, §§ 66-5-201-239 (1978, as amended through 2015), prohibits operation of a motor vehicle without liability insurance or other proof of financial responsibility and requires that proof of compliance be reported to the Motor Vehicle Division (MVD) of the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department (the Department) and kept with the vehicle. See § 66–5–205(A)-(B); 66–5–205.1(A)-(B). An MVD database that law enforcement officers can access from their onboard computers reports a compliance status of `active’ or `suspended’ or `unknown,’ based on MVD record information on liability insurance for each individual registered motor vehicle.
State v. Yazzie, supra.
The opinion goes on to explain that under the MFRA,
No person shall drive an uninsured motor vehicle, or a motor vehicle for which evidence of financial responsibility as was affirmed to the department is not currently valid, upon the streets or highways of New Mexico unless the person is specifically exempted from the provisions of the [MFRA].
Section 66–5–205(B). Violation of the MFRA is a misdemeanor offense. Section 66–5–205(E).
The Supreme Court went on to explain that the
Legislature instituted the MFRA out of an awareness `that motor vehicle accidents in New Mexico can result in catastrophic financial hardship’ and with the purpose of ensuring that motor vehicle operators `have the ability to respond in damages to accidents’ occurring on New Mexico roadways. Section 66–5–201.1. The MFRA further provides that the Department shall neither issue nor renew the registration for an uninsured vehicle and that it shall suspend an existing registration if evidence reflects that insurance has not been maintained. See § 66–5–206.

In 2001, the New Mexico Legislature amended the MFRA to enhance identification of uninsured vehicles. SeeH.B.847, 45th Leg., Reg. Sess. (N.M. 2001); § 66–5–205.1(D), (F). Among the resulting statutory provisions, the Legislature directed the Department to promulgate rules requiring insurance carriers to submit monthly reports of terminated insurance policies for the Department to keep in its files on the corresponding vehicles. Section 66–5–205.1(D). In response, the Department began operating the insurance identification database at issue in this case.
State v. Yazzie, supra.
The court then took up the facts and law at issue in this particular case, explaining that
[w]hile on routine patrol in San Juan County, New Mexico State Police Officer James Rempe entered the license plate number of the vehicle Defendant Joann Yazzie was driving into his patrol car's mobile data terminal (MDT). The MDT remotely accesses records maintained by the MVD regarding the compliance status of vehicles registered in New Mexico. The query returned a result indicating that the compliance status of the vehicle was `unknown.’ Upon receiving the report of `unknown’ compliance status, Officer Rempe activated his emergency lights and pulled over Defendant's vehicle to investigate further. The `unknown’ query return was the only basis for the traffic stop. Based on further information the officer acquired as a result of the stop, Defendant was arrested and charged in magistrate court with driving while under the influence of alcohol and failure to maintain insurance.

Defendant filed a motion to suppress all evidence obtained during the course of the stop, arguing that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop and thereby violated her right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article II, Section 10 of theNew Mexico Constitution. The magistrate court denied the motion, and Defendant conditionally pleaded guilty to a violation of [New Mexico Statutes Annotated]1978, § 66-8-102 (2010) for driving while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs, second offense, reserving the right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress.
State v. Yazzie, supra.
The Supreme Court went on to explain that,
[o]n appeal o the district court, Defendant renewed her motion to suppress. At an initial motions hearing, the State offered a witness from the MVD to provide explanatory testimony about the meaning of an MVD designation of `unknown’ compliance status and about `circumstances’ in which `insurance would be valid [or] not valid.’ The district court observed,

`I think the State's looking for this expert based on my previous decisions that insurance unknown just doesn't cut it to me. I think it needs to be more, and I think the State's following my previous directive that if they don't have more, I'm going to be suppressing these stops.’

Accordingly the State called Walter Martinez, Bureau Chief for the MVD Insurance Tracking and Compliance Program, to testify at the subsequent suppression hearings. Martinez testified that the database Officer Rempe accessed is maintained by a third-party vendor that receives information from insurance carriers and matches it with vehicle registration information provided by the MVD. The MVD receives nightly updates, which are in turn immediately sent to other agencies, including the Department of Public Safety.

An officer requesting insurance information from the system pertaining to a particular vehicle receives one of three possible responses through the MDT: `active’ or `suspended’ or `unknown.’ When entry of vehicle information triggers an `unknown’ compliance status, `it is highly likely’ that there is no insurance. Martinez testified that the MVD tracking process reflects that this likelihood of no insurance is ninety percent or greater.
State v. Yazzie, supra.
The opinion then explains that Martinez also testified that
when the MVD learns a vehicle is uninsured, it notifies the owner and allows a total of ninety-five days for the owner to produce evidence of financial responsibility before suspending the registration of that vehicle. During this interim period following notice to the owner, the MVD classifies the compliance status of the vehicle as `unknown.’ Martinez further testified about an MVD report of statistics on uninsured-status vehicles, compiling data from the 118,477 vehicles categorized as `unknown’ between October 5, 2011, and February 13, 2012. Of the total number of vehicles of `unknown’ compliance status, only eleven percent actually turned out to have had the required insurance when classified as `unknown,’ ten percent had lapsed insurance coverage that was later reinstated. The registrations of the remaining eighty percent were ultimately suspended for failure to bring the vehicles into compliance with the law. Martinez testified that although the precise numbers fluctuate, the percentages in the four-month sample period were generally reflective of the population of vehicles the MVD monitors for any given period.
State v. Yazzie, supra.
The Supreme Court then pointed out that the
district court found that the investigatory stop was constitutionally valid and denied Defendant's motion to suppress, concluding that at the time Officer Rempe initiated the stop it was reasonable for him to suspect that Defendant was in violation of the MFRA, given the high likelihood that a vehicle with a reported `unknown’ compliance status is uninsured.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that an MDT report that Defendant's insurance status was `unknown’ did not, without more support, provide reasonable suspicion to justify a traffic stop and that MVD statistics correlating `unknown’ compliance status with being uninsured could not `serve as a proxy’ for the officer's own personal knowledge at the time he conducted the stop, absent evidence he personally knew of the statistical correlation. State v. Yazzie, 336 P.3d 984 (New Mexico Court of Appeals 2014). The Court of Appeals accordingly reversed the district court's denial of Defendant's motion to suppress. Id.

We granted the State's petition for writ of certiorari to consider whether a vehicle traffic stop based only on information from an MVD records inquiry reflecting an `unknown’ compliance status for the particular vehicle is supported by reasonable suspicion.
State v. Yazzie, supra.
The Supreme Court began its analysis of the issue outlined above by explaining that
`[a]ppellate review of a motion to suppress presents a mixed question of law and fact.’ State v. Ketelson, 150 N.M. 237, 257 P.3d 957 (New Mexico Supreme Court 2011). First, we `look for substantial evidence to support the trial court's factual finding, with deference to the district court's review of the testimony and other evidence presented.’ State v. Leyva, 149 N.M. 435, 250 P.3d 861 (New Mexico Supreme Court 2011); see also Fitzhugh v. N.M. Dep’t of Labor, Emp’t Sec. Div., 122 N.M. 173, 922 P.2d 555 (1996) (`”Substantial evidence” is evidence that a reasonable mind would regard as adequate to support a conclusion.’ (citation omitted)) (New Mexico Supreme Court 2011). `We then review the application of the law to those facts, making a de novo determination of the constitutional reasonableness of the search or seizure.’ State v. Sewell, 146 N.M. 428, 211 P.3d 885.

In this case, the district court included findings of fact in its order denying Defendant's motion to suppress. The parties neither dispute the central facts of this case nor assert that the district court's findings were made in error. Accordingly, we accept the district court's factual findings and address whether Officer Rempe's actions were objectively reasonable and particularized as a matter of law. See Davis Devon Energy Corp., 147 N.M. 157, 218 P.3d 75 (New Mexico Supreme Court 2009) (`When there are no challenges to the district court's factual findings, we accept those findings as conclusive’).
State v. Yazzie, supra.
The Supreme Court then explained that it would (i) analyze whether Officer Rempe’s traffic stop complied with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and then (ii) analyze whether it complied with the requirements of the New Mexico Constitution. State v. Yazzie, supra.
The court began its Fourth Amendment analysis by explaining that
 `[t]he United States and the New Mexico Constitutions provide overlapping protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.’ State v. Rowell, 144 N.M. 371, 188 P.3d 95 (New Mexico Supreme Court 2008); see U.S. Constitution amend IV; N.M. Const. art. II § 10. Under the interstitial approach adopted by this Court in State v. Gomez, we ask `first whether the right being asserted is protected under the federal constitution. If it is, then the state constitutional claim is not reached. If it is not, then the state constitution is examined.’ 122 N.M. 777, 932 P.2d 1 (New Mexico Supreme Court 1997).  Accordingly, we first address whether Officer Rempe's traffic stop complied with requirements of the United States Constitution.
State v. Yazzie, supra.
The Supreme Court also noted that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
`prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures” by the Government, and its protections extend to brief investigatory stops of persons or vehicles that fall short of traditional arrest.’ U.S. v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 166, 173 (2002) (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 9 (1968)). While a full custodial arrest must be based on probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, see Terry v. Ohio, supra, an investigatory stop is grounded on the lesser standard of reasonable suspicion, Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325, 330 (1990) (`Reasonable suspicion is a less demanding standard than probable cause not only in the sense that reasonable suspicion can be established with information that is different in quantity or content than that required to establish probable cause, but also in the sense that reasonable suspicion can arise from information that is less reliable than that required to show probable cause’).

The overarching inquiry for all intrusions on personal liberty under the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness under the particular circumstances, `which involves two questions: whether the officer's action was justified at its inception, and whether it was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.’ State v. Neal, 142 N.M. 176, 164 P.3d 56 (New Mexico Supreme Court 2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
State v. Yazzie, supra.
The court then explained that a
traffic stop is justified at its inception if it is supported by reasonable suspicion that a law has been violated. See State v. Jason L., 129 N.M. 119, 2 P.3d 856 (New Mexico Supreme Court 2000). An officer's reasonable suspicion must be `a particularized suspicion, based on all the circumstances[,] that a particular individual, the one detained, is breaking, or has broken, the law.’ State v. Garcia, 147 N.M. 134, 217 P.3d 1032 (New Mexico Supreme Court 2009). In determining whether an officer's suspicion was reasonable, we employ an objective assessment of the officer's actions. See State v. Hubble, 146 N.M. 70, 206 P.3d 579 (New Mexico Supreme Court 2009). `The purpose of requiring objectively reasonable suspicion based on the circumstances is to prevent and invalidate police conduct based on hunches, which are, by definition, subjective.’ State v. Ochoa, 146 N.M. 32, 206 P.3d 143 (New Mexico Supreme Court 2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Accordingly, `[t]he subjective belief of the officer does not in itself affect the validity of the stop.’ State v. Hubble, supra. . . .   
State v. Yazzie, supra.
Next, the Supreme Court took up the issue as to whether the investigatory stop in this case was “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment, explaining that
[d]efendant understandably does not argue that a stop based solely on an MVD database report of a `suspended’ compliance status would have been invalid given the statutory requirement to maintain evidence of insurance or financial responsibility. See State v. Candelaria, 149 N.M. 125, 245 P.3d 69 (New Mexico Supreme Court 2011) (holding that officers had reasonable suspicion to conduct a vehicle stop where official license and registration records reflected that the vehicle was registered to a driver with a revoked license). Conversely, a return of `active’ without any other indicia of wrongdoing would necessarily fail to provide the individualized reasonable suspicion necessary to support a lawful stop. The critical inquiry before us rests on the response Officer Rempe received from the MVD database because an `unknown’ compliance status is factually and legally less determinative than compliance statuses of `active’ or `suspended.’

The law necessarily tolerates some risk of investigatory intrusion on a person's freedom of movement where ambiguous circumstances could reasonably be construed as involving either lawful or unlawful activity. See Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000) (relying on precedent and noting that even where `conduct justifying the stop was ambiguous and susceptible of an innocent explanation[,] . . . officers could detain the individuals to resolve the ambiguity’). `[R]easonable suspicion . . . need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct.’ U.S. v. Arvizu, supra. Reasonableness of a particular seizure instead `is judged by balancing its intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate governmental interests.’ Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 654 (1979).  
State v. Yazzie, supra.
The opinion goes on to explain that in Delaware v. Prouse, supra, the U.S. Supreme Court
employed this balancing test and held that discretionary license and registration spot checks of automobiles constituted an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment.  Delaware v. Prouse, supra.  The Court found that the marginal contribution to highway safety through such discretionary stops did not outweigh the intrusion on individuals' Fourth Amendment interests. See Delaware v. Prouse, supra. The Court's concern centered on the lack of `an appropriate factual basis for suspicion directed at a particular automobile’ or the absence of `some other substantial and objective standard or rule’ for discerning which vehicle to stop out of the general pool of vehicles on the roadways. Delaware v. Prouse, supra. The case before us does not represent the “kind of standardless and unconstrained discretion” that concerned the United States Supreme Court in ProuseSee Delaware v. Prouse, supra.
State v. Yazzie, supra.
The also noted that
[t]his is not a case where an officer made a stop solely on the basis that he had no information indicating whether Defendant was operating a vehicle in compliance with the law. Officer Rempe stopped the vehicle based on a report from the MVD records for the vehicle, which under New Mexico law must be maintained for every registered vehicle, that did not show compliance with the law and instead reflected an `unknown’ compliance status for the vehicle.

Other jurisdictions have addressed analogous traffic stops based on suspected noncompliance with financial responsibility laws where, unlike this case, the appellate record contained no evidence of the statistical significance of an `unknown’ compliance status report. See, e.g., U.S. v. Cortez-Galaviz, 49 F.3d 1203, 1206, 1209 (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit 2007) (concluding that a database report of vehicle insurance status `not found' was sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop in the absence of a showing of unreliability of the database); State v. Dixson, 280 Ga. App. 260, 333 S.E.2d 636, 639 (Georgia Court of Appeals 2006) (holding that a stop was not based on reasonable suspicion where there were `no facts in the record indicating that a return of “unknown” ma[de] it any more likely that a vehicle [was] uninsured rather than fully insured’); Gonzalez-Gilando v. State, 306 S.W.3d 893, 897 (Texas Court of Appeals 2010) (declining to find reasonable suspicion without `evidence developing the source of the information comprising the database, explaining what was meant when insurance information was unavailable, explaining why such information would be unavailable, illustrating the accuracy of the database, establishing the timeliness of the information within the database, . . .and the like’).

Under the approach of any of those jurisdictions, reasonable suspicion supported the stop in this case. Not only did the defense present no evidence of unreliability of the MVD database, as in Cortez-Galaviz, but the State developed the evidence, which Dixson and Gonzales-Galindo called out as lacking, to demonstrate that reliance on the New Mexico MVD database report of an `unknown’ compliance status provided a reasonable basis for suspecting that Defendant's vehicle was probably uninsured, as reflected in the findings of the district court.
State v. Yazzie, supra.
The Supreme Court therefore held that it
was objectively reasonable for Officer Rempe to suspect Defendant was operating an uninsured vehicle in violation of the law when the database indicated the compliance status was unknown to the MVD. If Officer Rempe's suspicion was particularized, the stop for further investigation `to verify or quell that suspicion’ was constitutionally justified. State v. Sewell, supra.
State v. Yazzie, supra.
The court also found that,
[u]nder the circumstances presented here, Officer Rempe was justified in his objective and particularized belief that the MVD database maintained for the purpose of ensuring compliance with the MFRA contained no information reflecting that the vehicle Defendant was driving was insured. Officer Rempe then had reason `to pluck this needle from the haystack of cars on the road for investigation of a possible insurance violation.’ Cortez-Galaviz, supra. Accordingly, Officer Rempe's investigatory stop complied with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
State v. Yazzie, supra.
The Court also went on to find that the result “under the New Mexico Constitution is the same as under the United States Constitution.” State v. Yazzie, supra. This conclusion was attributable, in large part, to the fact that the “search and seizure” provision of the New Mexico Constitution contains language that is almost identical to what appears in the Fourth Amendment. State v. Yazzie, supra.  More precisely, Article II § 10 of the New Mexico Constitution provides that “`The people shall be secure in their persons, papers, homes and effects, from unreasonable searches and seizures.’” State v. Yazzie, supra. The Supreme Court therefore held that
[a]ccordingly, we apply the same reasonable suspicion analysis to the investigatory stop here under Article II Section 10   as we did under the Fourth Amendment, and we hold that under the circumstances the traffic stop did not violate the New Mexico Constitution.
State v. Yazzie, supra.

So the Supreme Court reversed “the contrary opinion of the Court of Appeals and affirm the district court order denying Defendant’s motion to suppress.”  State v. Yazzie, supra.

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