Ignorance Of The Law Is No Excuse, Court Tells Cop

from the one-small-stopgap-in-a-torrent-of-unearned-forgiveness dept

We've grown accustomed to law enforcement being given a pass for not knowing the laws they're enforcing. A 2014 Supreme Court decision made being ignorant precedential, providing cops with an out citizens can't use. Ignorance of the law can be the best excuse when it's a cop trying to keep his evidence from being thrown out of court.

With rare exceptions, courts have said it's okay for officers to predicate stops on perceived traffic violations, rather than actual traffic violations. Officers really have to make an effort to run afoul of the Supreme Court-created Fourth Amendment loophole.

Another rare exception to the Heien rule has surfaced. The Kansas State Court of Appeals has denied an officer's attempt to salvage a stop and the evidence derived from it by asking for an application of the "ignorance of the law is an acceptable excuse" band-aid. The appeals court isn't willing to allow an officer's personal interpretation of motor vehicle laws to stand in for the actual wording of the law used as an excuse to pull a driver over. (via The Newspaper)

In this case, the driver was ultimately charged with DUI and not operating a vehicle with an ignition interlock device. The defendant argued the stop wasn't reasonable under the Fourth Amendment because the violation stated as the reason for the stop wasn't actually a moving violation.

The officer argued it was. At the center of the case were the vehicle's tail lights. The left light was broken. The other two -- right and middle -- were still functional. Highway Patrol Officer Reed Sperry testified that he was mistaken about Kansas' tail light law. From the decision [PDF]:

Sperry admitted that he misunderstood the law about brake lights. He testified that he mistakenly believed that Lees' brake lights needed to be as widely spaced laterally as practicable and mounted at the same height. In other words, he thought that both the left and right brake lights had to be working and that the middle brake light did not count. Sperry testified that he stopped Lees for a brake light violation, and he said nothing about any intent to perform an inspection under K.S.A. 8-1759a.

Despite this, the state argued that the officer's mistake shouldn't result in the suppression of evidence. It pointed to the Supreme Court's Heien decision while arguing the officer's "reasonable" mistake did not make the stop unlawful.

First, the state appeals court goes to the state law to see if it contains any ambiguous language. Nope.

In Kansas, the requirements for stop lamps are set forth in K.S.A. 8-1708(a) which states that "[e]very motor vehicle . . . shall be equipped with two (2) or more stop lamps meeting the requirements of subsection (a) of K.S.A. 8-1721."

K.S.A. 8-1721(a) states: "Any vehicle may be equipped and when required under this act shall be equipped with a stop lamp or lamps on the rear of the vehicle which shall display a red or amber light, or any shade of color between red and amber, visible from a distance of not less than three hundred (300) feet to the rear in normal sunlight, and which shall be actuated upon application of the service or foot brake, and which may, but need not, be incorporated with one (1) or more other rear lamps."

As the court notes, the undisputed evidence shows the driver's car had two (2) working tail lights, even with the left side light burnt out. The US Supreme Court's decision happens to be directly on point, since it also deals with tail lights and state laws. Surprisingly, this doesn't help Officer Sperry. In the Heiein case, the law used to predicate the stop was unclearly-worded. The same can't be said for the Kansas law.

Applying Heien and Pianalto, the State asserts that Sperry's mistake of law about the brake light violation was objectively reasonable, rendering the traffic stop lawful. But as Lees points out in his brief, the statutes at issue in Heien differ from the statutes at issue here. In Heien, it was ambiguous how many functioning brake lights the statute required; but the Kansas statutes are clear that only two functioning brake lights are required.

Again, the definition of "reasonable" must be applied to the officer's misinterpretation of the law. Remarkably, the Kansas appeals court says the standard of reasonableness for officers is higher than the standard for citizens.

Reading K.S.A. 8-1708(a) and K.S.A. 8-1721(a) together, no reasonable officer would think that the law required brake lights to be spaced laterally as far as practicable and mounted at the same height, as Sperry wrongly believed; neither statute suggests such a requirement in any way. Granted it may be reasonable for the average citizen to believe the law likely requires left and right brake lights, but law enforcement officers are not average citizens. They must reasonably study the laws they are duty bound to enforce.

If officers are finding it difficult to stay on top of the laws they're supposed to enforce, maybe they need to have a few chats with lawmakers and remind them that quality is better than quantity. Officers expect citizens to know the details of laws officers themselves are unclear on. Courts seems to expect it, too. That's completely backwards. It's like expecting a client to know the law better than their legal representation.

But that's how law enforcement operates day in and day out. Pretextual stops happen hundreds of times a day based on legal violations officers may only think have occurred. It's not until someone challenges the stop itself in court that the reasonableness of the officer's actions is even questioned. What we see on the surface in the handful of cases that reach this level of review is only a tiny percentage of the legally-unreasonable stops made daily by law enforcement. And it's unlikely to change until more courts hand down decisions like this.


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  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 28 Nov 2018 @ 3:30am

    [Law enforcement officers] must reasonably study the laws they are duty bound to enforce.

    Kinda hard to find guys who can do that when police departments are willingly pushing out intelligent applicants in favor of dumbasses.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2018 @ 5:49am

      Re: how many laws?

      How many laws are law-enforcement-officers expected to know?

      No LEO anywhere in America can honestly answer that question.

      They don't even have a ballpark # of how many laws they enforce, much less the details of those laws.
      Even local cops are theoretically responsible for thousands of laws and regulations.
      (it's much worse for normal citizens, who supposedly must be aware of hundreds of thousands national, state and local laws)

      Da ya think our lawmaking factory may be outta control?

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2018 @ 7:37am

        Re: Re: how many laws?

        Da ya think our lawmaking factory may be outta control?

        Maybe?

        How many laws are law-enforcement-officers expected to know?

        At least the ones they try to enforce.

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

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2018 @ 10:09am

          Re: Re: Re: how many laws?

          Seems odd to me that we haven't built systems that allow citizens and cops to easily search applicable laws. Even if it doesn't cover case law, it would at least provide some context to what is and isn't allowed.

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

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2018 @ 1:51pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: how many laws?

            ----"allow citizens and cops to easily search applicable laws."


            that would put most lawyers & politicians out of a job.

            Laws must be mysterious and unknowable to average people -- it keeps them confused and docile.

            even the top judges and lawyers in America ... only understand a tiny fraction of the formal laws on the books.
            it's a racket, as well as a mess

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

          • icon
            Thad (profile), 28 Nov 2018 @ 2:41pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: how many laws?

            There's a Charles Stross novel -- it's either Halting State or Rule 34, I forget which -- where a police officers wear AR visors that, among other things, have access to an online database that they use to determine whether someone is breaking any laws. The point Stross is making is that there are too many laws for anyone to keep track of all of them.

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

          • icon
            Bergman (profile), 28 Nov 2018 @ 6:03pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: how many laws?

            The problem is that written statutes are modified by case law every day, which can potentially alter them in ways that give the law in practice the reverse meaning of the statute in theory.

            Unless the statute is rewritten every time a court publishes a decision, it is literally impossible for people without access to an up to the minute legal library and all the time in the world to read it, to keep up. Even with time and access, the law is so vast that no one person can read every update, there isn't enough time in a lifetime to read the entire body of law and there isn't enough time in a day to read all of the day's updates.

            This leaves the average citizen fundamentally incapable of knowing what is the law and is not the law, yet we are expected to know it well enough that ignorance of it is not an excuse, based solely on a K-12 education.

            But cops get that same education PLUS they get specialized training in what the law says and how to enforce it -- yet courts almost universally excuse their ignorance, even though they are less ignorant than the average citizen.

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

            • icon
              nasch (profile), 3 Dec 2018 @ 8:57am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: how many laws?

              The problem is that written statutes are modified by case law every day, which can potentially alter them in ways that give the law in practice the reverse meaning of the statute in theory.

              How can a court decision make a law say the opposite of what is written?

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2018 @ 7:18am

      Re:

      The Supreme Court already ruled that cops are not duty-bound to enforce laws. Is that really different in Kansas?

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

      • icon
        Bergman (profile), 28 Nov 2018 @ 6:06pm

        Re: Re:

        It's not different in Kansas, but there's a key distinction here.

        The cop isn't being punished for not knowing the law. The cop's victim is being un-punished for not breaking the law in any way that would justify the stop that led to their conviction on other charges.

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

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 28 Nov 2018 @ 5:15am

    What alternate timeline has Kansas fallen into!?!?
    Holding cops accountable for knowing the law & not letting them get an oopsie that's okay when they stretch reality to silly levels?!

    Next they'll tell them you need a conviction to take property & seizing an entire house because the child sold a single joint is much to far!!

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2018 @ 7:45am

      Re:

      Kansas is weird. They're deeply red and basically always vote for the republican candidate for president as a whole, but they seem not to be not nearly as infected by hyper-partisanship in the face of all facts, and are surprisingly capable of changing their minds and being reasonable. They even elected a democrat for governor this past election after having previously put that idiot Brownback into power.

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

      • identicon
        hegemon13, 29 Nov 2018 @ 11:58am

        Re: Re:

        Yes, weird is right. Deeply red, but often a contrarian sort of red. For example, while Trump was taking primaries by storm, he lost the Kansas primary to Ted Cruz by a massive margin (23% to 47%). Also, for a red state, Kansans pride themselves on quality education. Sure the state elected Brownback. But when budget cuts started hitting school districts, a wave election replaced Brownback legislators with moderate Republicans, who not only undid many of Brownback's most egregious tax cuts and revised his budget, but joined Democrats in a bipartisan veto override to accomplish it. And now we have a democratic governor and representative.

        Really, I think it's a result of urban/rural divide. From an outside view, people see "Kansas, red state." But from living in the state, there's a sharp divide between deeply red rural, conservative voters, and urban voters who are much more likely to jump party lines.

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

  • identicon
    Dorothy, 28 Nov 2018 @ 5:36am

    Kansas, I've a feeling the cops need to know the law "in Toto".

    Ⲱ Ⲑ Ⲑ 𐍆 !

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

  • icon
    Richard M (profile), 28 Nov 2018 @ 5:38am

    Playing the slots with taxpayer money.

    " What we see on the surface in the handful of cases that reach this level of review is only a tiny percentage of the legally-unreasonable stops made daily by law enforcement. And it's unlikely to change until more courts hand down decisions like this."

    Even if the majority of cases are thrown out the cops are unlikely to change their behavior. Failure does not cost them anything so why would they change. They are playing slot machines with taxpayer money and even if they only win once in awhile why would they stop?

    If the courts start making rulings like this common the prosecutors might drop cases quicker when they get push back as it makes them look bad when they have lost a lot of cases come election time. Even for them the downsides are not all that great because they will be able to get most people to plead out to some charge just to get out of the system and on with their lives.

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

  • icon
    got_runs? (profile), 28 Nov 2018 @ 5:58am

    If the COP shot the guy it would be a problem.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2018 @ 6:18am

    How long has Officer Reed Sperry been with KHP?
    It would seem reasonable that the tail light issue is a common occurrence and The Kansas Supreme Court in 2008 ruled that a motor vehicle only needs two functional brake lights under state law - 10 years ago. Somebody needs to check into this guys cases and see how many other incidents of tail light infractions this guy tainted.

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

    • identicon
      dadtaxi, 29 Nov 2018 @ 2:38am

      Re: How long . . . ?

      Slight amendment with regards to the closing points being made above. Its not how many other incidents of tail light infractions this guy tainted that's important. Its how many other incidents of tail light stops this guy made.

      Until stats like this are put before the courts there is no "pattern of behaviour" for them to address, only "one off" incidents. And so "one off" incidents is all the police will then have to address

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2018 @ 6:29am

    I call pretextual, the tail light thing has been the rule for 10 years, the cop new the law and lied in a testimony to take advantage of the Heien rule. And he just got called on it. To bad Sperry won't be charged with anything. I hope the guy goes after him for civil rights violation.

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

    • icon
      stderric (profile), 28 Nov 2018 @ 9:53am

      Re:

      At first, I was going to give Sperry a bit of leeway: yes, he should have known the law, but it sounded like he freely & openly admitted that he was mistaken; it seemed more like the prosecutors who were independently pushing the Ignorance Is OK thing. Then I read the decision and noticed that the LEO arrested the driver for DUI/No Interlock but "did not issue a citation or warning for the defective brake light." Seems more than a little suspicious to not even cite the guy for the infraction that started everything.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2018 @ 8:52am

    blue getting a twist in his thong in 3, 2, 1...

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

  • icon
    Darkness Of Course (profile), 28 Nov 2018 @ 11:31am

    However, the number of lights is 1

    The statute states, stop light or lights. It also details as one, a few sentences further down.

    While it's nice they bounced the cop of limited knowledge there is no need for more than one stop light.

    I would recommend that it be 15" in diameter and 500,000 lumen. For the not so bright Kansas Short Bus Kops.

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2018 @ 11:49am

    Cool tech story, bro.

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

  • identicon
    Shannon, 28 Nov 2018 @ 12:18pm

    Comment

    Officers protecting the safety of others should not be brought into court for such stupidity. The criminal was drunk. Period. Law Enforcement doesn't get paid what they should if we as a society continue to drag them into court for non-sense, pretty soon there isn't going to be anyone to call upon for help. We all courts included need to show some respect.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2018 @ 12:56pm

      Re: Comment

      if he had stopped the driver for erratic vehicle operation (i.e., possibly drunk), there wouldn't be a question, would there?

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

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 28 Nov 2018 @ 3:14pm

      Nope

      The ones enforcing the laws do not(or at least should not) get a pass violating those laws and/or the rights of the public. If 'violating someone's rights by hallucinating what the law says and basing a fine on it' is 'nonsense' then you've not set the bar low you've thrown it out.

      Respect is earned, not owed, and police abusing their power and/or ignoring the law do not deserve respect, they deserve condemnation and punishment until they start respecting the law and rights of the public.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 29 Nov 2018 @ 3:11am

      Re: Comment

      Ok sure. This stop resulted in a drunk driver being found.

      But this only came to light BECAUSE a drunk driver challenged the court. the real question is how many stops this cop made which weren't challenged in court, or even how many stops were made which didn't result in any charges that could be challenged in court?

      If pretextual stops aren't challenged, (even for those resulting no charges), then any reason is needed. And if any reason is good enough, then no reason is needed.

      And yet, because this excuse for a stop has been made for who knows how many times before - a drunk driver gets off scott free. "That’s some fine police work there, Lou"

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

  • identicon
    Personanongrata, 28 Nov 2018 @ 2:25pm

    Arbitrary Application of the Law is Tyranny

    But that's how law enforcement operates day in and day out. Pretextual stops happen hundreds of times a day based on legal violations officers may only think have occurred. It's not until someone challenges the stop itself in court that the reasonableness of the officer's actions is even questioned. What we see on the surface in the handful of cases that reach this level of review is only a tiny percentage of the legally-unreasonable stops made daily by law enforcement.

    Pretextual stops based upon a law enforcement officers perceived traffic violations is a direct affront to the mythical beast known as rule of law.

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

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 28 Nov 2018 @ 3:22pm

    '... In related news, hell experiencing record snowfall.'

    Granted it may be reasonable for the average citizen to believe the law likely requires left and right brake lights, but law enforcement officers are not average citizens. They must reasonably study the laws they are duty bound to enforce.

    Where's a cloning machine when you need them? A judge holding a cop to a higher standard for once? Now if only more judges(like 'All'. 'All of them' would be good) could follow suit, that'd be great.

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

  • identicon
    Jay L. Stern, 28 Nov 2018 @ 10:39pm

    Cops being held to "higher standard."

    Don't believe it for a second! The cops know the laws. They also know that they can cite innocent motorists and get away with it most of the time because only people like the motorist in the story and LIKE ME will fight the BS. The rest of the time the motorist will grumble but pay the damn fine. And by the way, when attempting to fight against a wrongfully issued citation, the judges and the rest of the system make it virtually impossible to fight. How? They distribute the criteria that must be dealt with to various political entities, each disclaiming responsibity for the actions of the other. So the motorist contesting the BAD citation is left holding the bag.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2018 @ 4:29am

    Was justice done?

    It sounds like the driver was in fact drunk and not held responsible for this.

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

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 10 Dec 2018 @ 7:34am

      Re:

      It sounds like the driver was in fact drunk and not held responsible for this.

      It happens. That is occasionally the price of forcing the police and prosecutors to obey the law.

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


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