Uninsured drivers are an ongoing and all-too-real problem where the rubber literally hits the New Mexico road — our state is No. 4 in the nation when it comes to uninsured motorists, according to 2012 data.
The biggest government effort to curb that shirking of responsibility has been a taxpayer-funded database, which since 2002 has shown who has insurance on their vehicle as required by state law and who doesn’t — preventing drivers from just signing up to get a proof-of-insurance card to flash at law enforcement, then immediately canceling their policy to avoid paying premiums.
Yet, in 2015, the New Mexico Court of Appeals made that database far less useful with its ruling law enforcement could not use it to help determine whom they should stop to check for insurance when a computer license plate check turned up the insurance status as “unknown.”
The case arose from a DWI conviction that followed a police officer pulling over a vehicle after the insurance status came up as “unknown.” Now, a unanimous state Supreme Court has overturned the appellate ruling.
Chief Justice Charles W. Daniels’ opinion focuses on the Motor Vehicle Division testimony that, in 80 percent of cases, an “unknown” insurance status translates as an uninsured status. (The system classifies vehicles only as “insured” or “unknown” and sometimes a plate can come up as “unknown” even if the vehicle is insured because of time lag and other issues in updating the database.)
The appellate court’s rationale was that an “unknown” classification wasn’t sufficient “probable cause” for a traffic stop. In contrast, Daniels’ opinion, which is the final word on the matter, determines the statistics behind “unknown” deem it enough to meet a “reasonable suspicion” test, a lower bar than probable cause.
And restoring the database tool to law enforcement honors all New Mexico drivers who follow the law and carry the state-mandated liability insurance on their vehicles, as well as all taxpayers who keep that database up and running.