The last few months in New Mexico have proved traffic stops can be deadly—for both officers and civilians.
The “number one cause of harm or death of police officers” is now traffic stops, John Schaerfl, deputy chief of administration for the Santa Fe Police Department tells SFR. (Sandoval County Sheriff’s Sgt. Robert Baron recently died after being stuck on I-25 during a snowy day.)
But it wasn’t a city cop that pulled the trigger when Jeanette Anaya lost her life in early November. State police officer Oliver Wilson shot Anaya after pursuing her car in what police called a high-speed chase through a Santa Fe neighborhood. Police say that Wilson conducted an “intervention maneuver” to stop Anaya. When the officer exited his vehicle, Anaya’s “sedan began to aggressively and immediately back towards the officer,” a Department of Public Safety press release says. Wilson then fired “multiple shots” at Anaya, say police.
First Judicial District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco has turned the matter over to a grand jury that will determine if the shooting was justifiable.
State Police were already facing public outcry over an officer-involved shooting incident that occurred Oct. 28 in Taos and has resulted in a cop losing his job.
Video from the incident shows Officer Tony DeTavis citing Oriana Farrell, 39, for speeding. After arguing—Farrell didn’t want to make the decision to plead guilty or go to court—the woman, who had five children in her van, sped off. Eventually stopped again, she refused to exit the vehicle. Commotion erupted after her son attacked DeTavis. Backup arrived and an officer attempted to break open a passenger window with a baton after the family locked themselves in the vehicle. She sped off, away from the cops, when Officer Elias Montoya fired three shots at her van and later got fired from his job. He’s appealing his termination.
Statistics from the state Department of Public Safety show that in 2011, State Police had a physical confrontation in .04 percent of all calls for service and traffic stops. That number decreased to .03 percent the next year, according to the data.
“Given the number of calls and traffic stops the agency makes, that is a significant drop,” reads a memo to former State Police Chief Robert Shilling. The memo also cited a 2008 US Department of Justice survey that showed 1.4 percent of all police contacts nationally ended in a use-of-force encounter.
Clearly, driving away from or toward police officers isn’t the best idea. Neither is shooting at a car full of kids.
Don’t be a hard-ass (be safe)
A traffic stop can be a nerve-wracking situation for both parties. For many civilians, such stops are often the only time a person encounters the police. The stops also put cops in inherently dangerous situations: They must approach suspects in vehicles, sometimes on the shoulder of busy highways during hazardous driving conditions. Cops don’t know if a motorists is armed or otherwise dangerous. That’s why police say it’s best to show the officer that you’re going to be cooperative. Turn on your blinker to indicate you’re complying with yielding and pull over to the right in a safe place. Turn the car off once you’re stopped. When the officer approaches the vehicle, “don’t make any sudden movements” such as reaching for the glovebox or getting out of the vehicle, says State Police Spokesman Emmanuel Gutierrez. Police say it’s best to put your hands on the steering wheel and wait for the officer’s instructions. And if you happen to have a weapon, police say to inform the officer the location of the weapon.
Don't be a jackass (be polite)
Although on adversarial sides of the criminal justice system, both defense attorneys and cops agree that people should remember to be cooperative with police when they’re pulled over. “We have people that don’t comply with rolling down windows,” says SFPD spokeswoman Celina Westervelt. “It’s not a question.” Defense attorneys and police say to be polite, even if you disagree with an officer or feel your rights are being violated. Police record traffic stops with audio and video—which could later become evidence against the civilian or the cop. It’s better to fight perceived injustices in a courtroom than on the side of a busy highway. Besides, civility can go a long way toward getting out of a violation. Officers can use their discretion on whether to give you a warning. Police must be civil too: SFPD’s policy mandates that officers be respectful, professional and polite.
Don’t be a dumbass (know your rights)
Police officers have the legal authority to pull over motorists if probable cause exists that an infraction occurred or if they have reasonable suspicion to make the stop, says SFPD’s Schaerfl. (In the later example, he describes a situation where your vehicle description matches that of a vehicle at the scene of a bank robbery.) Although you must provide proof of your identity, the right to remain silent applies to traffic stops. “The burden is on the police officer and the state of New Mexico to establish the crime,” criminal defense attorney John Day says. (Responding to the question of why you were pulled over is one way cops may obtain an admission of guilt.) Day adds that if someone doesn’t want to talk to an officer, it might raise the officer’s suspicion, but he advises clients to politely tell police they don’t think it’s the best place to talk.
In New Mexico, police must obtain a warrant to search your vehicle, except in certain circumstances. Criminal defense attorney Mark Donatelli explains an entire law school class could be spent studying when an officer must obtain a search warrant during a traffic stop. But he says that generally in “exigent circumstances”—like when an officer’s safety is in jeopardy or when the cop has reason to believe evidence could be destroyed—officers may search your vehicle without a warrant. “Plain view” can be another exception to warrants: If an officer sees marijuana on your dashboard, he or she might take it without a warrant. Cops may look into your car from the outside, says Schaerfl. Either way, you can state on the record that you’d like them to obtain a warrant, and if they don’t, the legality of the cop’s warrantless search or seizure can be debated in court. In the end, if a motorist believes a cop is acting inappropriately during a stop, they can always request to speak with the cop’s commanding officer. But Schaerfl warns it might take a while for the commanding officer to show up at the scene—and that method isn’t a good way to get out of a ticket.
Don’t be an ass (don’t drink and drive)
The best way to avoid getting pulled over this holiday season is to not drive at all. This is especially important if you’ve had a drink, or two or three. Santa Fe County continues to subsidize cab rides for tipsy residents. Just ask the Capital Cab dispatcher for “a caddy cab” when you call 438-0000. Or take a Santa Fe Trails bus. Or call a friend. Or your mom. Just don’t call us from jail. We’re out of bail money.
Illustrations by Anson Stevens-Bollen