In the recent Supreme Court case of Hein v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court held that a police officer’s reasonable mistake of law can still validly provide reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop. Although the case caused some concern that police officers would now be able to ignore (or at least creatively interpret) the law when making a traffic stop and then later argue that they made a “reasonable mistake,” I argued that the holding would end up having a very limited application, since a police officer’s mistake of law would almost never be deemed “reasonable” by a reviewing court.
Recently the Hein decision has been applied by two lower courts, one of which found that the mistake by the police officer was reasonable under Hein, and one of which did not. In People v. Guthrie, the defendant ran a stop sign at the edge of a supermarket parking lot in the Village of Newark in New York. The police officer pulled the defendant over, noticed that he was intoxicated, and charged him with driving while under the influence. Upon further investigation, the parties learned that the stop sign had not been officially registered in the Newark Village Code, and therefore the sign was not legally authorized under the state vehicle and traffic law. Thus, the defendant had no legal duty to stop at the stop sign, and the police officer had no legal right to pull him over after he ran through the stop sign. The trial court therefore dismissed the evidence, and the appellate court agreed.
On appeal, the New York Court of Appeals reversed, holding that under Hein and the applicable New York state law, the officer’s mistake of law was reasonable, and therefore the stop was valid. The Guthrie Court did not say much about how to determine whether a mistake of law is reasonable or unreasonable; it spent most of its time explaining why the Hein rule was consistent with New York state law and why it was good policy. Essentially The Guthrie Court adopted the Hein Court’s theory that there should be no distinction between a police officer’s mistake of law or mistake of fact–as long as the mistake is reasonable, the police officer’s stop is still justified. In discussing the facts of the Guthrie case, the Court provided this rather unhelpful explanation:
[W]e are not saying that it would have been objectively reasonable for the arresting officer to have claimed ignorance of the requirement in Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1100 (b) that a stop sign in a parking lot be registered to be valid. We are saying that the stop was nonetheless constitutionally justified because the officer was not chargeable with knowing each and every stop sign that was registered under the Newark Village Code.
This explanation seems a bit circular: it doesn’t seem to matter whether the officer is expected to know about the requirement that a stop sign be registered if the officer is not required to know which stop signs are in fact registered. On the other hand, it does seem reasonable that a police officer would believe it was legal to pull someone over for running a stop sign. The only other options would be to require the police to memorize all of the stop signs in the precinct which are registered, or to require the officer to always look up the status of a stop sign after seeing a suspect run through it. Neither of these options seems very feasible.
Meanwhile, the Fifth Circuit was deciding the case of United States v. Alvarado-Zarza, in which the police officer pulled over the defendant for failing to signal 100 feet in advance of making a turn. The stop lead to a consent search, and the search led to a discovery of cocaine in the car. In a suppression hearing, the defendant pointed out that he was only making a lane change, not making a turn. The trail court denied the suppression motion, holding that the defendant made the lane change and then made a turn from the new lane, so that the lane change and subsequent turn were equivalent to “one prolonged turn.” The Fifth Circuit disagreed, holding not only that the turn signal law did not apply to lane changes, but also that applying the law to lane changes was unreasonable:
In Texas, “[a]n operator intending to turn a vehicle right or left shall signal continuously for not less than the last 100 feet of movement of the vehicle before the turn.” Section 545.104(b) is unambiguous. Its 100-foot requirement only applies to turns; lane changes are not mentioned. Further, the statute elsewhere refers to turns and lane changes separately, thereby setting out a distinction between the two. This distinction is further indicated by the Texas Driver’s Handbook, which defines a lane change as a “lateral maneuver moving the vehicle from one lane to another” and a turn as a “vehicle maneuver to change direction to the left or right.” See Mahaffey v. State, 316 S.W. 3d 633, 641 (Tex Crim App. 2010). The former definition confirms that a lane change, as its name implies, occurs when moving from one lane to another. A “turn,” on the other hand, involves a change to a vehicle’s direction. The terms “turn” and “lane change,” therefore, signify distinct actions. This, Section 545.104(b), by its plain terms, does not apply to lane changes.
Second, seven months prior to Alvarado-Zarza’s stop, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Mahaffey addressed the distinction between a turn and a lane change. In that case, a policeman mistakenly concluded that a driver was “turning” by moving out of a lane that was ending. Although the court did not discuss Section 545.104(b)’s 100-foot requirement, it drew a clear distinction between a turn and other movements, including a lane change. The court deemed this distinction “plain and unambiguous.” We interpret Mahaffey to be a rejection of Officer Barrientos’ view.
Because the caselaw far predates the stop in this case, and because the statute facially gives no support to Officer Barrientos’ interpretation of the 100-foot requirement, we conclude that his mistake of law was not objectively reasonable.
Since the Fifth Circuit was overturning a lower court ruling, it was not merely holding that the police officer’s mistake of law was unreasonable, but also that the district court’s interpretation was unreasonable. In other words, even when a police officer’s understanding of the law has been confirmed by a trial court judge, it could still be unreasonable.
What lessons can we learn from these two early applications of Hein? Perhaps the most troubling issue from either of these cases is that the district court in Alvarado-Zarza was willing to construe the turn-signal law so broadly against the criminal defendant, even in the face of all of the arguments to the contrary. But this is not really a critique of how Hein was applied, since the district court didn’t even think any mistake of law had been made.
In the end, both courts seem to have arrived at the correct result, though the Guthrie Court could have explained its rationale it a bit more detail. It is hard to argue that the police officer in Guthrie violated the defendant’s rights by pulling him over after he drove through a stop sign–even an “unregistered” one–while the Alvarado-Zarza case refused to give the police office the benefit of the doubt in construing a traffic law, even when a trial court judge agreed with him. Thus, it seems that so far the Hein decision has not provided police officers with an opportunity to ignore or aggressively interpret the law in their pursuit of traffic stops.