In an August ruling, the New Mexico Supreme Court clarified whether law enforcement officers have the authority to expand their investigations during traffic stops by questioning vehicle passengers for their identifying information.
According to the ruling, police can, under certain circumstances, request identifying information such as name and date of birth from passengers.
The case at the center of this ruling involved a 2015 incident in Clovis, New Mexico, where a police officer pulled over a vehicle for a broken license plate light.
During the traffic stop, the officer questioned the front-seat passenger, Hugo Vasquez-Salas, and subsequently charged him with possession of burglary tools. Vasquez-Salas later appealed his conviction, arguing that the officer had violated his constitutional rights.
The New Mexico Supreme Court rejected Vasquez-Salas’s argument, asserting that the officer’s actions did not constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The court clarified that the officer’s questioning of Vasquez-Salas was reasonable, as it was directly related to the ongoing traffic stop and did not excessively prolong the stop.
Justice Julie J. Vargas, who authored the court’s opinion, argued that “under the totality of the circumstances, the facts of this case present multiple factors that supported Officer Stacy’s reasonable suspicion beyond Defendant merely being in proximity to, or in possession of, lawful items.”
Among these factors were the nervous and unusual behavior exhibited by both the driver and Vasquez-Salas during the early-morning traffic stop. Additionally, the driver was an unlicensed minor, and both individuals provided false identifying information.
However, the court’s ruling maintained that officers’ scope of actions during traffic stops were still contingent on a case’s reasonable suspicion.
In this case, the officer’s suspicion was aroused not only by the broken license plate light, but also by the presence of an open backpack in the back seat containing items such as bolt cutters, gloves and a face covering.
Furthermore, Vasquez-Salas initially lied about his age, which contributed to the officer’s reasonable suspicion.
The court wrote that the “confusion about [the driver’s] own age gave Officer Stacy further justification to expand the search and satisfy his suspicion by asking Defendant’s age.”
The court further stated that the officer’s actions were justifiable because they had reasonable suspicion that a crime might be involved, especially given the circumstances.
The ruling also affirmed the trial court’s decision to allow the use of evidence from the traffic stop, albeit for different legal reasons than those cited by the state Court of Appeals.