New Mexico Court of Appeals Upholds Suppression of Ron Bell DWI Stop

Albuquerque’s celebrity attorney Ron Bell (the guy with the billboards that promises to sue drunk drivers) was recently himself the subject and target of a DWI investigation despite blowing a 0.0 and having prescription Adderall in his blood.

In a blow to permitting New Mexico police and prosecutors to arrest and charge DWI when a Defendant is allegedly “impaired to the slightest degree,” the New Mexico Court of Appeals recently affirmed on September 14, 2014, the Bernalillo District Court’s decision to suppress a DWI stop on the grounds the reasonable suspicion for Ron Bell’s DWI stop arose outside of the scope of the initial stop for traffic violations in violation of Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution. In other words, the Court held the police, under the New Mexico Constitution, did not have a reasonable suspicion to go from a traffic stop to even conducting a DWI investigation.

Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure requires a broader protection to individual privacy than the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (However, note that the duration or length of a DWI stop is still very much constrained by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and can serve as an independent basis for suppression.) “As a result, the propriety of police conduct during a traffic stop is measured from the perspective of the state constitution by a standard distinct from that of the Fourth Amendment.”

Under Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution both the “duration and scope” of a stop must be reasonable under the circumstances and, unlike under the Fourth Amendment, even questions that do not prolong the encounter are improper if they are not “reasonably related to the reason for the stop or otherwise supported by reasonable suspicion.” The policy reason articulated by the Court of Appeals for this limitation is to ensure that investigating officers do not engage in ‘fishing expeditions’ during traffic stops.

Ultimately, the New Mexico Court of Appeals concluded and affirmed that Ron Bell’s detention by the police during his traffic stop was illegal, and that the questions he was asked by the police were impermissible.  These included questions asking whether Ron Bell had any grenades, rocket launchers or dead bodies in his car–all this from a penalty assessment traffic offense, crossing a white line in the roadway.

When an investigative officer’s questions are not based upon reasonable suspicion, the evidence gathered as a result of the questioning, such as statements, drug tests, or observations of impairment, will be suppressed, and in the state’s case against Ron Bell, result in a dismissal where all the evidence was tainted by an illegal detention and improper questioning.

The original opinion can be found here: https://coa.nmcourts.gov/documents/opinions/Bell%20FO.pdf