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Illinois Supreme Court Holds Officer’s Reasonable Mistake of Law Can Justify Vehicle Stop

The Illinois Supreme Court recently held that an officer’s objectively reasonable mistake of law may form the basis for a constitutionally valid vehicle stop. Police officers stopped defendant Jose Gaytan, believing his car’s ball-type trailer hitch obstructed his car’s license plate in violation of the Illinois Vehicle Code. During the stop, officers discovered a diaper bag containing cannabis, which the defendant agreed was his. The defendant was arrested and charged with unlawful possession of cannabis and unlawful possession of cannabis with intent to deliver.

In the McLean County circuit court, the defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing the trailer hitch was not prohibited under the Illinois code, and therefore the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to stop the car. Gaytan’s attorneys argued that the stop was therefore an invalid seizure, and the cannabis should be suppressed.

At the hearing on the motion, the arresting officer testified that he and his partner were stationed in Chenoa, Illinois when they noticed Gaytan’s car because it was purple and had big tires. As the car drove past, the testifying officer noticed it “had a trailer hitch on the back and there was a ball on the back that obscured the license plate.” The officers decided to follow the car, during which the officer testified that he observed that “the hitch was covering some of the numbers on the plate.” Thus, the officers were unable to run a computer check of the license plate to identify the owner.

Gaytan submitted into evidence a photograph of the car taken from behind, showing the license plate and the trailer hitch. He argued that while the hitch “may partially obscure the bottom of the license plate,” it did not obscure “any part of the numbers.” Thus, the defendant argued, the officers lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop.

The circuit court nonetheless denied the defendant’s motion, reasoning that while the numbers were visible in the photo submitted by the defense, the officer testified that from a different angle, the numbers were obstructed. The court concluded that, since from the officers’ position some distance behind the vehicle, at least one of the numbers on the license plate was obstructed, the police officers had reasonable grounds to detain the car.

The defendant filed a motion to reconsider and reopen the evidence, which the circuit court granted. In the subsequent hearing, the defendant argued for the first time that the Illinois code only prohibits materials “on the plate or attached to the plate,” such as stickers and license plate covers, not trailer hitches. The state introduced the police squad car video of the traffic stop, which the circuit court found was unclear and did not add much to the evidence already introduced. The court rejected the defendant’s statutory argument and denied the motion. At the following bench trial, the defendant was found guilty of unlawful possession of cannabis with intent to deliver.

The appellate court reversed, holding that the circuit court erred in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. The appellate court concluded that the Illinois Vehicle Code prohibits only “objects obstructing the registration plate’s visibility that are connected or attached to the plate itself,” and not obstructions such as a trailer hitch. Thus, the court concluded that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to justify the stop. Since the cannabis should have been suppressed, the appellate court reversed the defendant’s conviction.

The Illinois Supreme Court allowed the state’s petition for leave to appeal. In the subsequent opinion, the court was “unable to say with certainty whether the purpose [of the statute at issue] is a broad one, i.e., to prohibit all objects construing any view of the license plate, or a narrow one, i.e., to prohibit only objects attached to the license plate itself.” Since the statute was unclear, the court invoked the rule of lenity, which requires the court to adopt the more lenient interpretation of an ambiguous criminal statute. Applying that rule, the court held that the Illinois Vehicle Code only prohibits those objects that obstruct the visibility and legibility of the license plate and that are physically connected or attached to the plate itself.

The state argued, however, that even if the statute does not prohibit trailer hitches, the traffic stop was nonetheless valid because the officers’ understanding of the statute was an objectively reasonable mistake of law, providing the necessary reasonable suspicion to justify the stop. Citing recent Supreme Court precedent, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed that an objectively reasonable, although mistaken, belief as to the meaning of a law may form the basis for a constitutionally valid vehicle stop under both the state and federal constitutions. Thus, the court held that the stop at issue was constitutionally valid. The court therefore affirmed the circuit court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress and reinstated the defendant’s convictions.

This decision creates a disturbing precedent, allowing Illinois officers to stop drivers for illegitimate means, as long as they reasonably believe the stop is justified. A New York appellate court recently reached a similar conclusion, also discussed on this blog.

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 at 217.525.0520.

More Blog Posts:

Dirty DUI Stings Constitutional, Says Federal Court, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, May 11, 2015.

Officer’s Reasonable Mistake of Law Does Not Render Traffic Stop Unconstitutional, Says New York Court, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, May 4, 2015.

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.

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