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.

Filed Under: heien rule, ignorance of the law, kansas, police, pretextual stop


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  1. 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.


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