Saturday, November 14, 2009

Flashing High Beams Did Not Provide Probable Cause For Stopping Vehicle

A conviction for driving while intoxicated was reversed in People v Rose (__AD3d __, 2009 NY Slip Op 08412 [4th Dept 11/13/09]) where the stop was baed on what the officer's bleief that he had witnesses a violation of the Vehicle and Traffic Law,based on mistaken interpretation of the law.

At the suppression hearing, the police officer who stopped defendant's vehicle testified that, as he was traveling behind defendant's vehicle on a divided highway, he observed defendant flash his high beams while there was a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction. The officer then stopped defendant's vehicle based on his belief that defendant had violated Vehicle and Traffic Law § 375 (3). The officer testified that he understood that statute to mean that a driver is not allowed to flash his or her high beams "for particularly no reason at an oncoming vehicle." Section 375 (3) actually provides in relevant part that, "whenever a vehicle approaching from ahead is within [500] feet . . ., the headlamps, if of the multiple beam type . . . shall be operated so that dazzling light does not interfere with the driver of the approaching vehicle . . . ." The mere flashing of lights, alone, does not constitute a violation of the statute (citations omitted). The People presented no testimony at the hearing concerning the distance between defendant's vehicle and the oncoming vehicle, and there was no evidence that defendant's flashing of the high beams interfered in any way with the driver of the approaching vehicle. Indeed, because the officer mistakenly believed that flashing of the high beams for no particular reason was unlawful irrespective of the distance between vehicles, the officer did not concern himself with the distance of the approaching vehicle. Thus, the stop of defendant's vehicle was based on a mistake of law. "Where the officer's belief is based on an erroneous interpretation of law, the stop is illegal at the outset and any further actions by the police as a direct result of the stop are illegal" (citations omitted).

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