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.