GRANTS – Personal privacy and the actions of an Aztec Police Officer took center stage at the Grants High School gymnasium last week as seniors from the school got a rare opportunity to see members of the New Mexico Court of Appeals in action on a real case involving the illegal transportation of methamphetamine.
It’s not the first time GHS students had this chance, according to Assistant Attorney General Anne Kelley, who said she was at the School three years ago for a similar event. But the case heard by GHS students this year elicited great response from them, Kelley said, and probably means that the NM Court of Appeals will be back again one day.
Judge Timothy Garcia spearheads the visits by the Court to New Mexico schools, visits that 13th Judicial District Court Staff Attorney Geoff Nims told the Beacon were for various reasons.
“It’s really pretty rare to see them in action,” Nims said. “If you really wanted to see the District Court in action, you could go to your county seat and watch the judge preside over a case. Part of the reason the Court of Appeals does this is to show to the schools and the students a little bit about how these things work.”
“This isn’t simply a civics lesson, it’s also a chance to see lawyers in action and ask them what they do; kind of a career day.”
It’s key, too, Nims said, to choose a case that would be intriguing to those in attendance, and the Appeals Case presented for GHS students involved a 46-year old woman named Judith Dean.
In November of 2010, Dean went to a shipping outfit in Aztec called “Zip and Ship” to send overnight, two boxes of Queen Anne’s chocolate-covered cherries to an address in Cheyenne, Wyo. The Zip and Ship had signs clearly posted that read, “all packages are subject to search by the employees,” and when the clerk of the store quoted Ms. Dean a price of $80 to ship the packages, she agreed. The clerk then told Ms. Dean that if he repackaged the box, he could get Ms. Dean a lower shipping rate and she agreed to that as well, and the clerk, Brandon Dietrich, went about repackaging the cherries.
While doing so, he unearthed a small green bag that he suspected contained drugs. He closed the shipping box, taped it shut but did not re-seal it, and returned the unopened green bag to where it originally sat. He then called the Aztec Police Department, and Officer Anthony Lucero responded.
Lucero accompanied Dietrich to a back room, where Lucero then viewed the package. He opened it, saw the green bag, also suspected that it contained drugs, and brought the package to the Aztec Police station, where he conducted a test to confirm that the contents of the bag were indeed methamphetamine. He then obtained an arrest warrant for Ms. Dean’s arrest.
During the Appeals Case, public defender Douglas Wood argued that Lucero went beyond the scope of Brandon’s search – legal because of the posted sign – and that the evidence should be tossed because of that.
“This is a case in which we have a police officer that had very good reason to go obtain a warrant, but he did not have good reason to forego a warrant, which is exactly what he did,” Wood argued, and he later cited the 2010 New Mexico Supreme Court case of State v. Rivera, a case in which a Drug Enforcement Agency agent opened a sealed container housing a toolbox, which contained bundles of bagged marijuana. The NM Supreme Court ruled that the DEA search was appropriate in that case, and the evidence was upheld.
In Dean’s case, meanwhile, Assistant Attorney General Pranava Upadrashta, in the first Appeals case of her career, defended Lucero’s actions and also cited the Rivera case as she argued to deny Wood’s motion to suppress the evidence against Dean.
“This case presents two issues,” Upadrashta said. “The first is whether Officer Lucero’s actions of seizing the bag with methamphetamine, opening the bag and conducting a test of its presumptive contents were reasonable under the fourth Amendment of the U.S Constitution. The second issue is whether the Officer’s actions were reasonable under article 2 section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution.”
Judges Cynthia Fry, Jonathan Sutin and James Wechsler moderated the comments by both Upadrashta and Woods, and seemed to ask “teaching moment” questions, at times when the legalese used by the two needed clarification for those in attendance.
After the Judges ruled in favor of Kelly, Upadrashta and the State (“A warrant was not required,” Wechsler commented), basically to thwart Dean’s attempt at having the case be heard by the New Mexico Supreme Court, it was the GHS students’ chance to be heard, and several students came forth with thought-provoking questions.
Student Russell Hunter asked, “I’ve seen several of these boxes of chocolates floating around here, and I wondering if it was necessary or even proper etiquette to have these exhibited in the manner that they are.”
Judge Fry responded, “In our court we never admit evidence; the only evidence we look at is what’s been presented in the trial court. It’s never admitted as actual evidence but lawyers can use it to demonstrate the evidence.”
Another question from Esperanza Jaramillo, a student with multiple tattoos, seemed to hone in on the issue of unfair search and seizure, and the profiling that sometimes occurs in legal cases. Other students asked lawyers about the schooling required to practice law.
Most questions, according to judges and lawyers, were very well thought-out, and they credited GHS teachers Lori Barringer and Loretta Crawford for preparing their students.
Finally, Wechsler also thanked those in attendance, and encouraged students to continue to learn about the legal system in their community.
“You have district court proceedings in your home town all the time,” he said. “It would be a wonderful learning experience for you to just go down to the court house, sit down and watch and observe what happens in court.”