Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ignorance of the Law--by the Police--IS an Excuse

The Supremes and NY's High Court Say So 

Ignorance of the law is no excuse, right?
Well, almost always.

Driving 65 mph because you didn't see the 55 limit posted? No excuse.
Thinking it's ok to let your spouse take some of your prescription medication for her pounding headache, unaware that your state criminalizes such sharing? No excuse.
Serving wine with dinner to your minor child, niece or nephew, unaware that your state allows no exceptions even within your own home. No excuse.
Carrying your lawfully registered firearm, unaware that the state your visiting has far different restrictions than your home? No excuse.
Etc., etc., etc.

But now suppose a police officer pulls you over for headlights that seem too bright, but are actually legal. Officer excused? Stop lawful?
Or an officer pulls you over for tinted windows that seem too dark, but are actually legal. Officer excused? Stop lawful?
Or an officer detains you for carrying a concealed firearm, unaware of special regulations authorizing you to do so. Officer excused? Detention lawful?
Or an officer detains you for wearing some police attire, unaware that the state's illegal impersonation law does not cover that. Officer excused? Detention lawful?

It just so happens that recent judicial decisions do in fact excuse officer ignorance of the law.
And those decisions do in fact hold that such stops or detentions are perfectly lawful.

More than that, these decisions were not rendered by some backwater courts.
No, these are recent decisions of two of the nation's most important courts: the United States Supreme Court and the New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals.

Both courts in the last several months rendered decisions placing their respective stamps of approval on stops based on police ignorance--or "mistake"--of the law.
The Supreme Court ok'd such stops under the United States Constitution.
The New York high court did so under the state's own constitutional search and seizure protections.

In the Supreme Court case, Heien v. North Carolina, the police officer stopped the defendant because one of his car's two brake lights wasn't working. Under the state's law, however, only one working light was required. (The stop resulted in the officer's discovering contraband in the car.) The Supreme Court, in an 8-1 vote, excused the officer's ignorance of the state's law,  and it held that the stop was constitutional.

In the NY Court of Appeals case, People v. Guthrie, the police officer stopped the defendant after seeing him drive through a stop sign. Problem was that the stop sign, at the exit of a private shopping center parking lot, was not legally authorized. (The stop resulted in determining that the defendant was driving while intoxicated.) New York's high court, in a 6-1 vote, excused the officer's ignorance that the stop sign was unauthorized. The court held that the stop was valid under the state's constitution--in addition to being valid under the Supreme Court's Heien decision.

These are significant decisions with considerable ramifications. That is not to suggest--or even intimate--that these decisions were wrong as a matter of law or unwise as a matter of policy. But the implications are far reaching and need to be explored.

We will do that in the next few posts.
First we'll look at the Supreme Court's decision. It happens to be the latest in a long series of decisions in which the Court seems increasingly less concerned about search and seizure rights.
We'll next look at the Court of Appeals decision which, albeit rendered by a court which typically requires much more justification for police intrusions, also forgave police ignorance--again, "mistake," as courts usually label it when speaking of official ignorance.

So the Heien decision in the next post(s).
New York's Guthrie decision after that.