Thursday, May 7, 2015

Ignorance of the Law--by the Police--IS an Excuse (Part 4: NY Court of Appeals' GUTHRIE decision)

Several month's after the Supreme Court's HEIEN decision, New York's highest court took its turn on the question of police ignorance or mistake of law.
[On HEIEN, see part 2 & part 3.]

The result in People v. Guthrie was the same--at least ostensibly so. But whether or not the result was actually the same, the ramifications are much different, because the Court of Appeals search and seizure case law that governs New York is much different. We'll get to the matter of ramifications in the next post.

For now, let's deal with my "at least ostensibly so." In short, the New York Court's decision was, curiously, quite confusing. Rather than a clear, straightforward rendering of the holding in the case, the 6-1 majority opinion seems more the product of compromise, accommodation of conflicting views among the Judges who signed on, and reaction to the pointed dissent. One might agree with the ultimate result in the case (and I do), and yet still be utterly unsure of exactly what the court decided.

Let's get to the facts of the case:
A driver ran a stop sign.
The sign stood at the edge of a supermarket parking lot.
The driver was exiting onto a public road.
A police officer saw this.
The officer pulled the driver over.
As later learned, the stop sign was not registered with the municipality.
Under state law, running such a stop sign is not a violation.
[Unrelated to the legal issue before the Court (i.e., the validity of pulling the driver over): the officer then smelled alcohol on the driver's breath and arrested him.]
There was no disagreement about some important matters.
First, running through that stop sign was not an infraction under New York's traffic laws, because the sign wasn't registered.
Second, the officer was unaware that the stop sign wasn't registered.
The only question before the Court was whether, in light of that unawareness, the officer's pulling the driver over was invalid. That is, whether, as a constitutional matter, it was an "unreasonable" stop.

[The significance for Ms. Guthrie is that the evidence of her driving while intoxicated would be thrown out of court if the stop was invalid. The much broader importance of the case is the precedent it establishes--i.e., what the constitutional law of New York is--and henceforth governs all police stops and all cases involving police stops throughout the state.]

Here, spelled out in the first paragraph of the majority opinion, is how New York's high court ruled:
We conclude that where, as here, the officer's mistake about the law is reasonable, the stop is constitutional.
Short, sweet, to the point: the stop was reasonable and therefore constitutional.
But was this case about a mistake of "law" at all? Despite the apparent clarity of the Court's statement, is that really what the Court was ruling on?

Was this case about an officer being ignorant or mistaken about the law that requires a full stop at a stop sign? No.
Was this case about an officer being ignorant or mistaken about the law that requires that a stop sign be registered? No.
Was this a case about an officer that was ignorant or mistaken about the law that requires that police must have a "reasonable" ground to stop a driver? No.

What this case was about--and only about--was an officer who apparently was unaware (i.e., ignorant or mistaken) whether a particular stop sign had in fact been registered.
Yes, that is a pure matter of fact--Was the stop sign registered or not?-- not the existence or meaning of the registration law.
That is a matter of a particular stop sign's history--Did anyone register that stop sign?--not about the registration law itself.
That is a matter of what happened or didn't happen in the past--Did the owner of the parking lot comply with the legal requirement of registering the sign?--not about the officer's mistake or ignorance about the law's requirement.

So, it's very confusing that the Court of Appeals majority should view this case as one involving a police officer's mistake of law. And a fortiori, about the majority's excusing ignorance or mistakes of the law on the part of police officers, when that issue really wasn't in the case and wasn't necessary to deciding the case.

Indeed, the Court itself seemed to understand that. To understand that this case was not really about any mistake of law. The Court actually made clear--much later in the majority opinion--that it was not excusing ignorance or mistake about the law.

In response to Judge Jenny Rivera's dissent that the Court had never before excused an officer's mistake of law, the majority explained its ruling:
[W]e are not saying that it would have been objectively reasonable for the arresting officer to have claimed ignorance of the requirement in Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1100 (b) that a stop sign in a parking lot be registered to be valid. We are saying that the stop was nonetheless constitutionally justified because the officer was not chargeable with knowing each and every stop sign that was registered under the Newark Village Code. [My emphasis added.]
Well, that doesn't seem like an explanation of the Court's initially stated ruling at all. It's more like a contradiction. Just answer this:
Is the Court saying that it's excusable for an officer to be ignorant about a law--here the stop sign registration law--or is it now denying that it's saying such a thing?
Is the Court saying that it's excusable for an officer to be unaware of that law--or to be unaware of whether a particular stop sign had been registered?

The Court is denying that it would excuse ignorance of the registration requirement. It's insisting that it's only excusing unawareness that the particular sign was unregistered. And that is a pure matter of ignorance or mistake about a fact, not about the law.

Were some Judges who cast their votes in the majority uncomfortable with the Court saying that it was excusing an actual mistake of law? Did they press for language that diluted the Court's initially stated ruling? Language that made pretty clear that this case was not at all about the police officer's ignorance or mistake about the law that required stop sign registration?

And yet, and yet, the majority opinion later reinforced the confusion when it reverted to it's excusing police failure to know the law:
Finally, there is no unfairness in forgiving a police officer's objectively reasonable mistake of law...
But then again--yes, the majority opinion seems to swing back and forth--the Court concluded with the following lines, suggesting once more that it (or at least some Judges in the majority) were aware of the confusion it would be reaping and uncomfortable with the precedent (apparently) being set:
[W]e conclude that the traffic stop was justified under both the Fourth Amendment and article I, § 12 based on the officer's reasonable belief that defendant failed to stop at a valid stop sign. It is undisputed that the stop sign was of regulation color, height and dimension; its only defect was that it was not properly registered.
Again, whether it was "a valid stop sign" by having been "properly registered" is a pure question of fact, of history, of what happened or not. And whether the officer knew or didn't know about that fact hasn't a wit to do about whether the officer knew or didn't know about the law.

Let me be clear--I don't want to causing additional confusion. But, just in case anyone cares, I agree wholeheartedly with the ultimate result in this case. If a police officer sees someone run a stop sign, it seems to me perfectly reasonable and therefore constitutionally valid for the officer to stop that driver for what, again, reasonably seems to be an offense--as well as a genuine safety concern. So I do not have a problem with the Court's approving the officer's pulling the driver over in this case.

What is troubling, however, is the utter confusion in the Court's opinion--it's swinging between mistake of law and mistake of fact. What's also troubling is the Court's (apparent, because repeated) ruling. Not only was the ruling about mistake of law unnecessary (since the case really involved ignorance or mistake of fact). Beyond that, such a ruling can henceforth be applied to validate intrusions and invasions of search and seizure rights--of persons who are totally innocent of any legal wrongdoing--on the basis of official ignorance or mistake about what the law really is.

That's hardly a recipe for encouraging knowledge of the law by police officers.

The hope is that the Court of Appeals strictly limits this ruling to the kind of case that Guthrie was really about. Not a "reasonable" ignorance or mistake about the law. But about a police officer's perfectly reasonable unawareness of a particular fact--i.e., a fact about which it would be unreasonable to expect a police officer would necessarily be aware. Because that's really what was at issue in Guthrie.

In the next post, we'll look at the ramifications of the Court of Appeals ruling on mistake of law--assuming that is actually what the Court ruled on.
For now, let's just say that the ramifications are far far less drastic than they are for the Supreme Court's HEIEN  decision. That's largely because the Court of Appeals, as a matter of its own independent case law for New York, has rejected much of the Supreme Court's atrocious search and seizure jurisprudence.