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Officer’s Reasonable Mistake of Law Does Not Render Traffic Stop Unconstitutional, Says New York Court

In People v. Guthrie, a New York appellate court decided whether there exists constitutionally viable probable cause to effectuate a traffic stop when the stop is justified by an officer’s mistaken belief. The court concluded that when the officer’s mistake is objectively reasonable, the stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment.

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Just after midnight on September 27, 2009, a Wayne County police officer stopped Rebecca Guthrie’s vehicle after observing her fail to stop at a stop sign in Newark Village. While effectuating the stop, the officer noticed the odor of alcohol. The officer performed several field sobriety tests and a breath test, which suggested the defendant was intoxicated. The officer arrested the defendant, charging her with failing to stop at a stop sign in violation of New York law.

Prior to trial, the defendant moved to suppress evidence gathered from the stop, arguing the officer lacked probable cause. The trial court took judicial notice of the stop sign’s location and the fact that it was not registered in the Newark Village Code. The court therefore granted the suppression motion and dismissed the charges, reasoning that the stop was not justified because the stop sign was not adequately registered pursuant to state law. The Wayne County court affirmed, holding that the officer’s good faith mistake that the stop sign was legally authorized was insufficient to “blink away any irregularities in the laws he [was] attempting to enforce.”

In reviewing the lower courts’ decisions, the New York Court of Appeals first explained that pursuant to the Fourth Amendment and the New York constitutional corollary, a police seizure cannot be arbitrary. Since a traffic stop constitutes a seizure, it must be supported by the officer’s probable cause to believe a traffic violation has occurred. Citing New York precedent, the court explained that probable cause does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but information adequate to support a reasonable belief that an offense has been or is being committed, or that evidence of a crime may be found in a particular location.

Typically, a vehicle failing to stop at a stop sign constitutes probable cause. However, all parties here agreed that the stop sign was not legally valid because it was not adequately registered. Thus, the defendant could not be prosecuted for a stop sign violation. The state argued that the traffic stop was constitutionally sound because the officer observed what he rationally believed to be a violation of state law. The defendant argued that the officer’s mistake of law, even when reasonable, cannot justify a traffic stop.

The court explained that while the defendant was correct that the officer’s good faith mistake could not justify the traffic stop, the proper question was instead whether he reasonably believed that a traffic violation had occurred. The court relied on the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Heien v. North Carolina, in which it clarified that the Fourth Amendment permits objectively reasonable mistakes, whether mistakes of fact or law. In Heien, the officer stopped a vehicle with only one working brake light, which the officer erroneously believed was a violation of North Carolina law. The Court concluded that the officer’s misunderstanding of the relevant statute, which was susceptible to numerous interpretations and had not been construed by North Carolina courts, consisted of a reasonable mistake of law. Thus, while the defendant could not be prosecuted under state law for having only one brake light, his cocaine conviction, which flowed from the search incident to the stop, was upheld.

The Guthrie court also relied on its own precedent. In People v. Estrella, it affirmed the denial of a suppression motion based on evidence gathered from a traffic stop justified by car windows that were illegally tinted under New York law, but legal in the state in which the car was registered. The court reasoned that the officer was not required to know the legality of the windows in another state to constitutionally effectuate a traffic stop in New York. Turning to the present case, the court reasoned that, as in Estrella, the stop was constitutionally justified because the officer was not chargeable with knowing each and every stop sign that was registered under the Newark Village Code.

The Guthrie court concluded, pursuant to Heien and Estrella, that the traffic stop at issue was justified under both the state and federal constitutions, based on the officer’s reasonable belief that the defendant failed to stop at a valid stop sign.

If you have been charged with a DUI crime in Illinois, it is crucial to speak to an experienced Illinois DUI lawyer as soon as possible. Harvatin Law Offices, PC provides knowledgeable representation for those in Springfield and throughout Illinois. We have considerable experience defending individuals charged with DUI offenses. To learn more and to set up a free initial consultation, contact us online or call us toll-free at 1-800-829-8513.

More Blog Posts:

Georgia Supreme Court Weakens Implied Consent Law, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, April 10, 2015.

Illinois Appellate Court Upholds Defendant’s Suspension Based on Officer’s Incomplete Report, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, April 1, 2015.

Illinois Counties with the Highest DUI Arrests, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, March 2, 2015

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