Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Can a Seizure Lawfully be Based on the Officer’s Mistakes as to the Law?

In People v Estrella 2008 NY Slip Op 01239 [2/8/08] the Court divided as to whether the stop of a vehicle with Georgia license plates was lawful where the window tint rendered them less transparent than required pursuant to a Georgia statue which had already been declared unconstitutional. In part the disagreement is over whether the police need to know whether the driver was a Georgia resident and, thus, not subject to New York’s tint rule. The majority held that
We cannot agree with the dissent that the officer who stopped defendant's vehicle knew at the time of the stop that "defendant's vehicle was registered in Georgia and that defendant was a Georgia resident" and thus that, pursuant to Vehicle and Traffic Law § 250 (1), defendant was exempt from the requirements of section 375 (12-a) (b) (4). Section 250 (1) provides in relevant part that the owner of a vehicle that is in compliance with the registration and equipment requirements of the state in which the owner resides is exempt from provisions of the Vehicle and Traffic Law pertaining to registration and equipment. The exemption is applicable, however, only if the state in which the owner resides grants "like exemptions" to residents of New York State (id.). The record of the suppression hearing establishes that, at the time of the stop, the officer did not know whether defendant was the owner of the vehicle, whether the vehicle was properly registered in Georgia, or whether the light transmittance complied with Georgia law (see id.). Rather, the officer knew only that the vehicle was operated on a public highway with a rear window that appeared to be tinted with a material having a light transmittance of less than 70%. We therefore conclude that the officer who stopped the vehicle had the requisite probable cause to believe that a violation of Vehicle and Traffic Law § 375 (12-a) (b) (4) had occurred (see People v Robinson, 97 NY2d 341, 349-350; People v McKane, 267 AD2d 253, lv denied 94 NY2d 921, 922). The stop itself was necessary to obtain the information whether section 250 (1) was applicable and thus whether defendant was exempt from the requirements of section 375 (12-a) (b) (4). Also contrary to the view of the dissent, it is unreasonable to require that police officers be familiar with the equipment requirement laws of every state, and presumably other countries, in order to effectuate a proper stop for a violation of New York State law.

By contrast, the two dissenting Justice reasoned that
New York motor vehicle equipment provisions, however, do not apply to motor vehicles owned by nonresidents of New York, provided that the owner is in compliance with the equipment provisions of the law of the state of his or her residence (see Vehicle and Traffic Law § 250 [1]). Here, the police officer who stopped defendant's vehicle knew only that defendant's vehicle was registered in Georgia and that defendant was a Georgia resident. Thus, Georgia law applied with respect to the tinted rear window on defendant's vehicle, and there was no window tint law in effect when defendant's vehicle was stopped. The window tint statute in Georgia had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Georgia (see Ciak v State, 278 GA 27, 28-29, 597 SE2d 392, 394) several months before the defendant's vehicle was stopped, and a new window tint statute was not enacted in Georgia until nearly a year after the prior statute was declared unconstitutional (see Ga L 2005, Act 67). Thus, contrary to the view of the majority, we conclude that the police did not have probable cause to believe that defendant had committed a traffic infraction. While it is true that the officers were unaware that Georgia's window tint statute had been declared unconstitutional, that mistake of law, as opposed to a mistake of fact, cannot justify the stop of a vehicle and the ensuing search and subsequent seizure of evidence therefrom (see People v Smith, 1 AD3d 965; Matter of Byer v Jackson, 241 AD2d 943, 944-945). Further, we discern no valid public policy reason for not requiring police officers to familiarize themselves with the motor vehicle equipment laws of other states if they stop such vehicles solely on the basis of a purported equipment violation. Motor vehicle stops constitute "at least a limited seizure subject to constitutional limitations" (People v John BB., 56 NY2d 482, 487, cert denied 459 US 1010) and, in our view, where a stop is predicated on a traffic infraction, police officers must be charged with the objective standard of knowing whether such an infraction occurred (see generally Robinson, 97 NY2d at 349-350).

Perhaps it should be pointed out that the Court of Appeals has interpreted New York law as providing defendant’s with only a limited mistake of law defense and held in People v Marrero (69 NY2d 382) that the defense of mistake of law was not available to federal corrections officer, who was arrested in social club for possession of loaded .38 caliber automatic pistol and who claimed he mistakenly believed he was entitled pursuant to statute to carry handgun without permit as peace officer.

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