Reasonable Mistakes and Reasonable Suspicion

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The court of appeals issued several opinions yesterday. Among the most interesting is State v. Hopper, a case that addresses when an officer’s mistaken beliefs can support an investigative stop.

The defendant in Hopper was driving on Piedmont Circle, a loop road in an apartment complex in Winston-Salem. It was raining heavily. An officer noticed that the defendant’s tail lights were not on, and concluded that the defendant was violating G.S. 20-129, which requires a vehicle’s tail lights to be on whenever the vehicle is on a public street and its windshield wipers are in use. The officer therefore stopped the defendant. During the stop, the officer noticed drugs and a gun, which led to criminal charges against the defendant.

The defendant moved to suppress, arguing that Piedmont Circle was not a public street and that the officer therefore lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, the defendant pled guilty and appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed. The appellate court assumed arguendo that Piedmont Circle was not a public street, but held that even if it wasn’t, the officer reasonably believed that it was, and that a reasonable mistake of fact can provide the reasonable suspicion necessary for a traffic stop.

The principle that a reasonable mistake of fact can provide reasonable suspicion appears to be uncontroversial. But a reasonable mistake of law cannot provide reasonable suspicion in North Carolina. State v. McLamb, 186 N.C. App. 124 (2007). (How to handle officers’ reasonable mistakes of law is controversial nationally. 38 Geo. L. J. Ann. Rev. Crim. Pro. 43, 48 (2009) (noting that “[t]he circuits have split on whether an officer’s mistaken belief that a traffic violation has occurred will support an investigatory stop if the mistake is one of law,” and collecting cases).)

So, was the mistake in Hopper really one of fact, or was it one of law? This issue received little or no attention from the court and from the parties, but McLamb provides an interesting comparison. The officer in that case believed that the speed limit on a particular road was 20 m.p.h., when it was actually 55 m.p.h. In Hopper, the officer believed that a particular road was a public street, though the court of appeals assumed arguendo that it was not. It may not be immediately obvious whether these are mistakes of law or fact, but it seems to me that whatever they are, they are the same thing. In other words, I don’t think that the assumed facts of Hopper can be distinguished from the facts of McLamb, which held that the officer’s mistake about the speed limit was one of law.

As it happens, I tend to think that both mistakes were mistakes of fact. But it seems to me that the defendant in Hopper could have trumpeted both the holding of McLamb and the statement in that case that a stop should not be upheld when an officer “stop[s] [a] vehicle[] based upon [his] subjective belief that traffic laws have been violated even where no such violation has, in fact, occurred.” (Internal quotation marks and citation omitted.) It certainly strikes me as odd that neither the opinion in Hopper, nor either party’s brief, even cites McLamb. Unless and until the state supreme court addresses officers’ reasonable mistakes, lawyers and judges may have trouble categorizing such mistakes, and so may have difficulty determining whether stops based on such mistakes should be upheld.

4 comments on “Reasonable Mistakes and Reasonable Suspicion

  1. The problem I see with this ruling is that it is very easy for an officer to testify to a personal subjective mistake of fact which no evidence could ever contridict. What prevents an officer from stopping/searching/arresting a person who the officer “mistakenly” believes matches the discription of a suspect though it’s not even close? Is banned from the property when they aren’t? Or is driving on a revoked license when he’s in full compliance?

    “But”, I hear you say, “it must be a REASONABLE suspicion”? Well that hurdle is so low, it is appearantly ephemeral. After all, in this case the officer testified that he regularly patrols the area, is very familiar with it, knows that it is the private property of the the City Housing authority, and the defense attorney introduced photos of the no tresspassing signs at the entrance. If anyone should know that this isn’t a public street, it should be this officer. Yet, the court has found that his mistake is reasonable.

    I don’t think I’m being paranoid. I’m aware of a pending case (not one of mine) where the defendant was pulled over because, according to the officer, he accidently misread the valid registration sticker and thought it was expired. Other factors raise suspicions that this was a pretextual stop for “driving while black”. Given the gracious deference judges give cops, odds are that stop will be ruling legal under this precedent.

    Ultimately, I don’t think that the court is considering how suceptible this ruling is to abuse by that subsect of officers who already feel endowed with the impunity to arbitrarily infringe upon the liberties of certain people.

  2. The question I have is, why should it matter whether or not the officers mistake was in regards to “fact” or “law”? Will the two ever not be interchangeable in such circumstance?

    A patrolling officer is (by definition) patrolling the area in search of illegal activity. They are there, patrolling the streets, literally looking for anything that they BELIEVE to be activity that is against the law. If they were to make any mistake that led to them interfering with the environment around them (searching and seizing weaponry and narcotics), they would HAVE to believe that they were following the law in doing so.

    The idea is so subjective that it forces itself into being unreasonable. What’s the core fallacy that we need to correct to help avoid such judicial generalizations?

  3. include on email list

  4. Just came across this while re-reading Terry v. Ohio and felt it summed up my feelings nicely:

    … [S]imple “‘good faith on the part of the arresting officer is not enough.’ . . . If subjective good faith alone were the test, the protections of the Fourth Amendment would evaporate, and the people would be ‘secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,’ only in the discretion of the police. ” Beck v. Ohio, supra, at 97.

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