May 31, 2011
Police officers in New Mexico can take guns away from drivers who pose no threat. The state supreme court ruled on May 20 that “officer safety” is more important than any constitutional rights a gun-owning motorist might have. The ruling was handed down in deciding the fate of Gregory Ketelson who was a passenger in a vehicle pulled over on November 13, 2008.
During the stop, Hobbs Police Officer Miroslava Bleau saw a 9mm handgun on the back seat floorboard. Ketelson and the driver of the car were ordered out and away from the car while Officer Shane Blevins grabbed the gun. The officers later learned that Ketelson, as a convicted felon, could not legally possess a firearm. The court, however, only considered whether the officers acted properly in taking the gun before they had any reason to suspect Ketelson, who was entirely cooperative during the encounter, of committing a crime.
Ketelson and the National Rifle Association argued that even a brief seizure of a firearm without cause violates fundamental, constitutionally protected rights. Ketelson also argued the gun could not have been taken without a search warrant, consent or exigent circumstances. A district court and the court of appeals agreed with this reasoning. State prosecutors countered that anyone with a gun ought to be considered “armed and dangerous” and thus the gun could be seized at any time. The high court agreed with this line of reasoning.
“Neither the defendant nor the driver was restrained, and thus the risk that one of them would access the firearm was especially potent,”
- A d v e r t i s e m e n t
Justice Petra Jimenez Maes wrote for the court. “Under such circumstances, Officer Blevins could constitutionally remove the firearm from the vehicle because he possessed a reasonable belief based on specific and articulable facts which warranted him in believing that defendant was armed and thus posed a serious and present danger to his safety.”
Because a gun would only taken for the duration of the traffic stop, the court decided such seizures were reasonable.
“The retrieval of the gun from the vehicle during the limited context of the traffic stop was at most a minimal interference with the suspect’s possessory interest,” Maes wrote. “Our decision in this case, which addresses a temporary separation of a firearm from the occupants of a car during the duration of a traffic stop, does not depend on any requirement of particularized suspicion that an occupant is inclined to use the firearm improperly.”
The decision overturned statements made in a previous ruling, New Mexico v. Garcia.
“It would be anomalous to treat the mere presence of a firearm in an automobile as supporting a reasonable suspicion that the occupants are inclined to harm an officer in the course of a routine traffic stop,” the court held in 2005.
A copy of the decision is available in a 140k PDF file at the source link below.