SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Presiding over criminal trials, New Mexico’s district court judges play a key role in administering justice across the state. But a new ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court clarifies that during a preliminary hearing before a trial, judges cannot toss evidence that may have been illegally obtained.

Before a criminal case goes to trial, there’s usually a ‘preliminary hearing’ where the judge decides if prosecutors have probable cause, and evidence, to take to trial. At the preliminary hearing, the court doesn’t determine if the defendant is guilty. Rather the court simply decides if they should go ahead and have a trial.

But in a 2020 preliminary hearing in Bernalillo County, a district court judge concluded that a law enforcement search that was the basis of a criminal charge was an illegal search and decided not to move the case forward to trial. Prosecutors appealed that decision and now, the New Mexico Supreme Court is weighing in.

The majority opinion from the New Mexico Supreme Court affirms the State Court of Appeals decision that under the state constitution, judges don’t have the right, during a preliminary hearing, to exclude evidence obtained from an unconstitutional search. But some justices disagreed.

Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon and Justice Michael E. Vigil were the two dissenting opinions. They argued that: “District judges have both the power and the obligation to evaluate the constitutionality of evidence at a preliminary examination.”

While the latest ruling clarifies that during preliminary hearings district court judges can’t simply toss evidence that may have been unconstitutionally obtained, there is a procedure for removing such evidence later in the judicial process. That process, called a ‘suppression hearing’ is generally held after the preliminary hearing.