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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  • identicon
    special frend, 5 Oct 2016 @ 1:51am

    we I guess cops won't be loing there 5 bedroom house

    anytime ever, so long as you can make up other laws on the spot and have courts and other armed sociopaths supporting you you will never go broke

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    scatman, 5 Oct 2016 @ 4:52am

    this is how the terrorist win

    they attack us, and we attack each other...everyone is a suspect

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    GrooveNeedle (profile), 5 Oct 2016 @ 5:08am

    Anyone notice the officer enters into record that he was driving while using his cell phone? I don't know about NC, but it some places that alone will earn you a ticket.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2016 @ 6:39am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 5 Oct 2016 @ 6:00am

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2016 @ 6:22am

      Re: Why should police have to know the laws?

      I don't think Hollywood does know the actual, Constitutional purpose of copyright.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        DannyB (profile), 5 Oct 2016 @ 8:40am

        Re: Re: Why should police have to know the laws?

        Yep.

        So why should police know any of the laws they are enforcing?

        It's difficult enough to keep track of the various combinations of donut types, fillings and toppings.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2016 @ 9:43am

      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

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    aerinai (profile), 5 Oct 2016 @ 6:12am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2016 @ 6:41am

      Re: Nuanced Nuances of Nuance

      Do you apply this same approach at the place you are employed?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        crade (profile), 5 Oct 2016 @ 7:56am

        Re: Re: Nuanced Nuances of Nuance

        Definitely. If I wasted my time nitpicking over the stupid rules they make up here, I wouldn't get anything accomplished. People follow the spirit of the rules at work, I don't know many that nitpick about technicalities, and those that do are not the people who actually contribute.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2016 @ 7:55am

      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?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2016 @ 7:59am

      Re: Nuanced Nuances of Nuance

      Maybe you need fewer laws?
      Maybe you need simpler laws?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        JoeCool (profile), 5 Oct 2016 @ 9:43am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Unanimous Cow Herd, 5 Oct 2016 @ 8:11am

      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?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Padpaw (profile), 5 Oct 2016 @ 1:10pm

        Re: Re: Nuanced Nuances of Nuance

        don't forget the murder you because they claimed to "fear for their lives" which is a free pass for serial killers these days.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2016 @ 9:01am

      Re: Nuanced Nuances of Nuance

      Why, it should be obvious that a state's laws do NOT apply in other states, and therefore drivers with cars registered in other states get a free pass.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Alya, 5 Oct 2016 @ 11:13pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 5 Oct 2016 @ 11:04am

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 5 Oct 2016 @ 11:24am

      Re: I was with them until the search.

      But it's for public safety. If there was a minor defect on the car exterior, there may be other defects on the interior, such as a missing gear shift knob or something.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2016 @ 11:24am

      Re: I was with them until the search.

      This is why they want most people to be poor, so that your vehicle looks like shit and they can use that as an excuse.

      Oh yeah, and they also want all the money, and then they complain about the economy.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Padpaw (profile), 5 Oct 2016 @ 1:07pm

    The whole don't have to know the law to enforce it, is completely insane.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 6 Oct 2016 @ 10:34am

      Re:

      But the US has Secret Laws!

      And Secret Interpretations of Laws!

      If we allowed police to know these, then we would all be unsafe! It would be a global catastrophe!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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