SANTA FE — A New Mexico law making it a felony to flee a pursuing law enforcement officer requires police to be wearing a uniform and driving a vehicle with visible markings such as the police agency’s insignia, the state Supreme Court ruled June 11.
In a divided decision resolving two consolidated cases, the state’s highest court interpreted provisions of a law used to prosecute people who lead police on high-speed chases.
Under the law, a person can be charged with aggravated fleeing a law enforcement officer for driving in a reckless way that endangers others after being signaled to stop during a pursuit by a “uniformed law enforcement officer in an appropriately marked law enforcement vehicle.” It is a fourth-degree felony and convictions carry a sentence of up to 18 months in prison.
The Court concluded that a district court properly dismissed a charge against a man in San Juan County because the pursuing sheriff’s deputy was driving an unmarked sport utility vehicle, which had flashing red and blue lights in its grill and a siren, but no decals, insignias or lettering to indicate it was a law enforcement vehicle.
In a case from Curry County, the Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that a man’s conviction should be reversed because the pursuing sheriff’s deputy was wearing civilian clothing – dress slacks, shirt and tie with a badge displayed on shirt pocket – rather than a uniform. The deputy worked as an investigator and drove an unmarked SUV with flashing lights in the grill but no lettering or law enforcement decals.
The justices concluded that the Court of Appeals had wrongly determined in both cases that the vehicles driven by the deputies met the law’s requirement for appropriate markings.
In the majority opinion written by Justice Michael E. Vigil, the Court said it looked to the “plain meaning” of the words “uniform” and “appropriately marked” to interpret the law and help determine the legislative intent of the statute. The Curry County deputy’s civilian clothing did not distinguish him as a law enforcement officer, according to the Court. “Moreover, while a police officer’s badge is a distinctive accessory that identifies a police officer, it is not, standing alone, a uniform,” the majority concluded.
For drivers to know they are being pursued by a law enforcement officer, the Court’s majority wrote, a police vehicle needs to display “decals or other prominent and visible insignia identifying it as such.”
“Reiterating the definition of ‘mark’ as that which provides identification, we cannot conclude that lights or a siren are unique in identifying a police officer’s vehicle where emergency vehicles, tow trucks, and even civilian vehicles may be equipped with these same signaling devices,” the Court’s majority wrote.
Activating flashing lights and a siren of “a vehicle that has no insignias, stripes, decals, labels, seals, symbols or other signs or lettering identifying the vehicle as a law enforcement vehicle does not automatically transform an unmarked police vehicle into a marked police vehicle,” the Court’s majority reasoned.
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Judith K. Nakamura disagreed with the majority’s strict interpretation of the statutory wording at issue in the cases. She said it “has the pernicious effect of permitting some offenders who knowingly disobey officer commands and then flee in a manner that endangers the public to avoid criminal punishment simply because an officer’s uniform and/or vehicle were not sufficiently distinctive.”
“What I do not accept is the notion that our Legislature meant to embed in the aggravated fleeing statute the presumption that a defendant can only know that he or she is fleeing police when police are formally attired and operating a vehicle with decals or insignia,” Chief Justice Nakamura wrote.
Particularly at night, defendants may not be able to see decals or other markings on a pursuing vehicle, the Chief Justice stated, and “the only identifying feature of a law enforcement vehicle may be flashing red and blue lights in the defendant’s rearview mirror, perhaps accompanied by a siren.”