State Appeals Court Says Not Just Any Nonexistent Law Can Be Used To Initiate Traffic Stops

from the legislative-ambiguity-still-a-useful-investigative-tool,-though dept

The US Supreme Court issued law enforcement fishing licenses with the Heien decision. Vehicle stops no longer needed to be predicated on legal violations. (If they ever were…) Law enforcement officers were no longer required to know the laws they were enforcing. The Supreme Court’s decision combined reasonable suspicion with an officer’s “reasonable” grasp of moving violations, further deteriorating the thin Fourth Amendment insulation protecting drivers from suspicionless, warrantless searches.

With the standards lowered, officers can now stop anyone for almost any reason, provided they can make the justification stated in their report sound like a reasonable approximation of what they thought the law was, or what they wanted the law to be. (The Supreme Court’s Rodriguez decision still allows for bogus traffic stops. It just puts a highly-subjective time limit on the fishing expedition.)

The Supreme Court’s case originated in North Carolina. Oddly enough, further down the judicial food chain, a North Carolina state appeals court has just suppressed evidence based on a traffic stop with no legal basis. (h/t The Newspaper)

Antwon Eldridge was pulled over because his vehicle was missing the driver’s side mirror. This led to a search of his vehicle and the discovery of crack and marijuana. But the reason for the stop failed to hold up in court, even with the Heien decision in place.

The opinion [PDF] details the officers’ version of the events and the reason for the stop.

On 12 June 2014, Deputy Aaron Billings of the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office was traveling northbound on U.S. Highway 421 while talking on the phone to his supervisor, Lieutenant Brandon Greer. As he was driving, Deputy Billings noticed a white Ford Crown Victoria driving without an exterior mirror on the driver’s side of the vehicle. The vehicle was registered in Tennessee.

Deputy Billings was aware that North Carolina law generally requires vehicles to be equipped with exterior mirrors on the driver’s side. He asked Lieutenant Greer to confirm that the applicable statute did, in fact, require the presence of an exterior mirror on the driver’s side of a vehicle, and Lieutenant Greer responded that Deputy Billings was correct.

Everything is correct but the jurisdiction. Both agreed it was illegal to operate a vehicle without a side mirror in the state, but they were unaware that the statute limited that rule solely to vehicles registered in North Carolina.

The lower court found the officers’ mistake reasonable and refused to suppress the evidence. The appeals court, however, found the officers’ error unreasonable, even when considering the Supreme Court’s Heien decision. In its take on Heien — which overturned one of its earlier decisions — traffic stops can be based on misinterpretations of law, but only if the cited law is unclear or vaguely written.

Unlike the statutory language at issue in Heien, the text of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-126(b) is clear and unambiguous. The phrase “registered in this State” as used in this statutory provision is susceptible to only one meaning — that is, the vehicle must be registered in North Carolina in order for the requirements of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-126(b) to apply. Thus, a reasonable officer reading this statute would understand the requirement that a vehicle be equipped with a driver’s side exterior mirror does not apply to vehicles that — like Defendant’s vehicle — are registered in another state.

Unfortunately for drivers, there’s no shortage of vaguely-written laws. This isn’t going to turn North Carolina into a state where motorists are only pulled over for actual illegal activity. What it does do, however, is take away a bit of the useful ignorance that law enforcement likes to rely on. Both officers claimed they were unfamiliar with the statute’s jurisdictional limitations and only discovered this after the fact. No “good faith” is extended to these officers by the appeals court, which seems to actually expect officers to know the law they’re enforcing — unlike other courts more willing to give the government the benefit of a doubt they rarely extend to criminal defendants.

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Comments on “State Appeals Court Says Not Just Any Nonexistent Law Can Be Used To Initiate Traffic Stops”

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27 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

LEO do not have to adhere to the laws of the land.
In fact, they get “qualified immunity” from the laws they are supposed to enforce – whether they understand them or not. Not sure why everyone else must adhere to the made up laws these people use in their rationalizations. Oh, ane one more thing .. ignorance of the law is no excuse, unless you are LEO.

DannyB (profile) says:

Why should police have to know the laws?

You wouldn’t expect your doctor to know about anatomy.

You wouldn’t expect your lawyer to know laws, court rules, procedures, and precedents.

You wouldn’t expect a building engineer to know about stress, loads, or basic physics.

You wouldn’t expect Hollywood to know about the constitutional purpose of copyright.

You wouldn’t expect a licensed driver to know the traffic rules and traffic signs.

So why should police need to know the laws?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Why should police have to know the laws?

Hollywood, Laws, Bad Cops?
Apropos to nothing really, but those three things always beings to mind the movie ‘Walking Tall.”
I destinctly remember how all my other classmates would talk about how he would ‘widdle that stick into a club’ or how he ‘beat the crap outta somone’ with said club, but never heard someone say ‘He learned & memorized every word of the law so he could use it best to bring justice’…
Even back then I understood a) that knowledge is strength, and b) knowing all the details allows you to manipulate the path required to get the desired outcome.
Although I was a good kid, my parents always said I should have been a thief or a preacher.
I became and electronics engineer and network engineer. Maybe they weren’t that far off

aerinai says:

Nuanced Nuances of Nuance

I’m actually going to go with the officer on this one… that is a REALLY tiny statute to overlook considering the amount of rules that need to be enforced.

When I remember things like rules of the road, I don’t memorize the actual law as it is written, I memorize the gist… Right on red, stop at a red light, turn left when its safe… etc.

Given police are people as well, I’m sure they do the same things to laws.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Nuanced Nuances of Nuance

He was aware of the law, asked someone to confirm it, and the fact that they looked it up should have informed them of the wording and limitations.

He had the gist, confirmed the specifics, and got it wrong. So it might be tiny statute, but where is the excuse for overlooking it when you got someone to confirm the statute?

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Nuanced Nuances of Nuance

Which is exactly the problem today – most laws are written by lawyers with the express intent of keeping other lawyers employed interpreting the laws they write. There hasn’t been a “plain-language” law in decades. It’s exactly the same problem with patents – patent lawyers write patents so that companies have to employ their own patent lawyers to tell what the flipping hell the patents mean.

Unanimous Cow Herd says:

Re: Nuanced Nuances of Nuance

Please read above. Would you expect your defense attorney to get the “gist” of court rules and proceedings? Or would you prefer that he be well versed in both?

Would you prefer that the guy cooking your food knows “about” what temps are safe for proper cooking or refrigeration and “about” how clean his kitchen should be? OR would you prefer that the kitchen meet health dept. standards.

Neither of the examples above carry a a gun and can deny you your freedom of movement, take away your children, seize your property or incarcerate you, etc.

Cops MUST know the laws they are to enforce. If not, what purpose do they serve beyond revenue collectors?

Alya says:

Re: Nuanced Nuances of Nuance

Actually, this type of limitation of scope is very common in state laws concerning vehicle equipment. In fact, I would have been surprised if it wasn’t limited to vehicles registered in the state. I don’t know why the officer should have expected this one to be different.

So, no, I don’t see where he had any excuse. At all.

David says:

I was with them until the search.

Most States motor vehicle laws are pretty similar. After all, driving isn’t that different from State to State, an car makers don’t want to have 50 different requirements for cars to have to deal with. So stopping him on that point, especially since he confirmed the basics of the law, seems reasonable.

However, how did that warrant a search? What about the external flaw of the car, which is a minor offense, lead to investigation of the interior of the car?

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