See People v. Gaytan, 2015 IL 116223 (May). Episode 073 (Duration 21:40)
It turns out that a traffic stop based on reasonable mistake of law is not illegal. What happens when a police officer stops a car based on the officer’s mistaken interpretation of a traffic law?
Can an officer’s mistaken interpretation of the law support a seizure?
The United States Supreme Court case of Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S. Ct. 530 (2014), held that “reasonable suspicion can rest on a mistaken understanding of the scope of a legal prohibition.” Heien, 135 S. Ct at 536.
What Happened in Heien?
That case involved a cop …
- Pulling over a car
- With one working taillight
- Car was searched and
- Defendant was convicted of trafficking in cocaine.
That traffic law, however, was also found to be ambiguous.
The Supreme Court specifically found that when a police officer pulls over a car based on an “objectively reasonable, although mistaken, belief” that a traffic law was being violated the fourth amendment is not violated. Id.
The court went on to say that:
“To be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some, mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them ‘fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.’ Id. citing Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 176 (1949).
Reasonable Mistakes of Law
The Court went on to explain that:
*** Reasonable suspicion arises from the combination of an officer’s understanding of the facts and his understanding of the relevant law. The officer may be reasonably mistaken on either ground. Whether the facts turn out to be not what was thought, or the law turns out to be not what was thought, the result is the same: the facts are outside the scope of the law. There is no reason, under the text of the Fourth Amendment or our precedents, why this same result should be acceptable when reached by way of a reasonable mistake of fact, but not when reached by way of a similarly reasonable mistake of law.” Id. at 135 S. Ct. at 536.
The Illinois Supreme Court Follows Suit
Well, it has not taken the Illinois Supreme Court long to jump on this case to sustain an improper police stop based on a mistaken interpretation of the traffic code.
In the Illinois case…
Defendant is a passenger in a car stopped by police. Police said there was a trailer hitch “blocking” the rear license plate numbers.
The Illinois Traffic Code
The Illinois Vehicle Code has a law against obstructing a license plate.
The Code says that:
“Every registration plate shall at all times be … in a place and position to be clearly visible and shall be maintained in a condition to be clearly legible, free from any materials that would obstruct the visibility of the plate.” 625 ILCS 5/3-413(b).
What Happened In Illinois Case?
Upon the driver rolling down her window …
- Officer smells cannabis
- The car was searched
- Cannabis discovered in a diaper bag
- Defendant admits it was his.
Defendant was convicted of unlawful possession of cannabis with intent to deliver (720 ILCS 550(5(d)).
SCOTIS (Supreme Court of This Illinois State) Findings
The Supreme Court found that this section of the traffic code, as written, was ambiguous. The rule of lenity forced the Court to rule that section 3-431(b) only prohibits objects that obstruct the visibility and legibility of the license plate when they are physically connected or attached to the plate itself. See ¶ 39.
Defendant vigorously contested that the trailer hitch was in violation of the traffic code.
He filed a motion to suppress evidence on the grounds that there was no reasonable, articulable suspicion that an offense was being committed making the traffic stop illegal.
At the hearing, the officer testified that the ball “hitch was covering some of the numbers on the plate” and the numbers could not be seen. ¶ 8. Defendant simply argued that this was not true and submitted a photograph.
The photo clearly showed that the numbers were visible despite the presence of a ball hitch.
However, the trial judge denied the motion to suppress because when viewed by the officer from behind the car at a greater distance than the photograph at an angle at least one of the numbers could have obstructed.
Ultimately, the case came down to whether the traffic law in question banned obstructions that were attached to the plate itself. Defendant argued that the hitch was not actually attached to the plate itself, therefore the traffic law in question was not violated.
The Illinois Supreme Court said that their case fit squarely within the justifications set out in Heien:
- The trailer hitch was not illegal
- The traffic code was ambiguous
- The officer made a mistake
- The officer’s mistake was objectively reasonable
Thus, the Illinois Supreme Court held that suppression of evidence was not warranted after this improper traffic stop.
Traffic Stop Based on Reasonable Mistake of Law is Not Illegal
The court’s exact finding was that …
“…an objectively reasonable, though mistaken, belief as to the meaning of a law may form the basis for a constitutionally valid vehicle stop under our state constitution. For the reasons noted previously, it was objectively reasonable for the officers in this case to believe that the trailer hitch violated section 3-413(b).” ¶ 53.
Alarm Bells Warranted?
So far, these are the kinds of comments I am hearing about the doctrine of “reasonable mistake of law”:
This is a broadening of the “good faith” exceptions to the exclusionary rule. Which Illinois has refused to broaden like the federal system has.
To this criticism the Illinois Supreme Court said, “no not really.”
Good faith exceptions begin with a premise that a seizure or a search was unlawful or illegal. But that is not the premise here. The court said that the stop was not illegal.
The question of even applying the exclusionary rule is not met because the whole point of the ruling is that no illegal search took place in the first place.
Sounds like a semantics game, but that is the nature of the law.
Additionally, I have been hearing this line of criticism:
– Exclusionary rule is dead or dying.
– Police are going to fake it.
– There is now no incentive for the police to learn the laws.
Some commentators have said that the whole idea is crazy. The notion of a “reasonable” mistake of law is crazy. Citizens often are not allowed to float by with an argument that they were mistaken on the law. But now police are allowed to make mistakes in their enforcement of the laws.
At this point, (but things could change) I don’t believe any alarm bells are warranted.
My most common commentary I make on cases is equally applicable on this case.
The case is limited in scope, and it will be difficult to expand it out to more general circumstances.
I feel this way because the cases require that the…
The traffic law has to be genuinely ambiguous.
Otherwise, the mistaken interpretation is not reasonable.
This is a pretty significant limitation that cannot be forgotten. I continue to stress that the results should be limited in scope and it is our job to keep an eye out on these cases and to ensure that trial judges enforce the “genuinely” ambiguous portion of the ruling.