NM Supreme Court: Probation term does not expire if defendant absconds

When a term of probation expires, it means the defendant has satisfied all criminal liability, and is entitled to a certificate from a court saying so. See NMSA 1978, sec. 31-20-8. The term of probation is tolled, however, if the defendant is a fugitive from justice. See NMSA 1978, sec. 31-21-15(C).

Last January, the Court of Appeals issued a controversial decision in State v. Begay, holding Section 31-21-15(C) applies only to sentences imposed by a district court, not a magistrate court (where defendant Begay was sentenced).

The upshot was that if a defendant violated his probation, and managed to avoid capture until after the original term of probation expired, then he would get off scot-free, since his probation could no longer be revoked.

The legislature and governor found this to be … less than satisfactory, and immediately amended the tolling statute to clarify that it applies to probation sentences imposed by magistrate courts too.

Yesterday the Supreme Court also pronounced itself less than satisfied, and reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision. The unanimous opinion in State v. Begay, written by Justice Nakamura, acknowledges that the plain language of Section 31-20-8 does not say that a term of probation doesn’t expire while a defendant is on the lam. But interpreting the statute in that way would lead to absurd results, because doing so would incentivize defendants to violate the terms of their probation and then attempt to evade the reach of the court until their probationary terms ended.

Thus, employing the “absurdity canon,” the Supreme Court held that a term of probation does not expire under Section 31-20-8 where a defendant becomes a fugitive from justice while on probation. I agree that this is the right result.

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