Friday, March 11, 2011

Why an Officer's Mistake of Law Cannot Provide Probable Cause for a Stop

We've all been there. You're driving along the interstate or the highway and the driver in front of you, who had just used his blinker to signal a lane change, forgets to turn off his blinker after he completes the lane change and proceeds to drive the next five to ten miles oblivious to the fact that his right turn signal is still engaged. I think I can speak for most drivers that this is extremely irritating, though I will concede that I have been guilty of doing this myself. However, I never stopped to question whether I could be guilty under the law for leaving my blinker on. The police officer in the Second District's recent decision in People v. Haywood, No. 2-09-1325, slip op. (February 24, 2011) thought that it was a violation of the traffic code to drive to down the road with one's blinker on, but the appellate court thought otherwise.

In Haywood, a police officer pulled defendant over after observing him driving down the road with his blinker on while passing three opportunities to turn right into two driveways and onto a road. See id. Defendant was cited for driving on a suspended license (625 ILCS 5/6-303) and for improper use of a turn signal (625 ILCS 5/11-804(d)). Id. A search of the car incident to defendant's arrest led to the discovery of a controlled substance, for which defendant was charged under 720 ILCS 570/402(c). See id. at 1,3. The court granted defendant's motion to suppress and quash arrest based on the defendant's argument that driving down the road with his blinker on did not give the officer probable cause to pull him over. See id. at 3. The trial court noted that "an officer's mistaken belief that a statute has been violated does not authorize or justify a traffic stop or any subsequent actions. In other words, the court concluded, the State could not claim a good-faith exception to justify the stop." Haywood, No. 2-09-1325, slip op at 3. The State appealed. See id.

Terry v. Ohio "permits a police officer to conduct a brief, investigatory stop of a person where the officer reasonably believes that the person has committed a crime." Id. at 4 (citations omitted). This crime could be as minor as a traffic violation. See Whren. The first issue that the court had to decide, then, was whether driving down the road with one's blinker on violated 625 ILCS 5/11-804(d). The court held that it did not, reasoning that "While section 11-804(d) requires that a turn signal be used to indicate an intention to turn, change lanes, or start from a parallel-parked position, the plain and ordinary meaning of the statute does not prohibit a driver from activating one turn signal without intending to change direction--as long as the vehicle is not parked or disabled or the driver is not using his turn signal as a 'do pass' signal. There is no evidence in the record that defendant was using his turn signal on one side of a parked or disabled vehicle or as a 'do pass' signal, which are the only types of conduct prohibited by section 11-804(d)." Id. at 6-7.

The State then argued in the alternative that "the traffic stop was objectively reasonable because Deputy Lillge had a good-faith mistaken belief that defendant was committing a traffic violation." Id. at 9. The court, however, held that "'[a] stop based on a subjective belief that a law has been broken, when no violation actually occurred, is not objectively reasonable. McDonald, 453 F.3d at 962. Consistent with McDonald, we conclude that Deputy Lillge's mistaken belief that defendant's conduct amount to a traffic violation did not justify the stop at its inception." Haywood, No. 2-09-1325, slip op. at 11.

There are two interesting points of law that come from this opinion. The first is that driving down the road with your blinker on is not a violation of the Illinois Vehicle Code. But the more interesting point of law, which has a much broader impact on drivers, is that a police officer's good-faith mistaken belief that a traffic violation has occurred does not provide the officer with probable cause to pull the driver over. So on a motion to suppress and quash arrest, the defense lawyer should first determine whether defendant's conduct actually violated the traffic code. If the defendant's conduct did not violate the traffic code, then an officer could not have had valid probable cause to pull defendant over, despite the officer's good-faith belief that the defendant had violated the Code.


Michael W. Huseman said...


car accident lawyer said...

Each state may have a different ruling for this. Otherwise, a law is a law and is implemented.

pedestrian accident attorney los angeles said...

I believe it should not be taken against the office if there are lapses in the arrest. As long as there is probable cause provided, it should still be taken as a legal precedent.