Monday, June 20, 2011
Officer’s Mistake of Law Made Traffic Stop Unreasonable—C.A.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
An officer who stopped a vehicle because it had no front license plate, even though it had a valid rear plate from a state that only issues one plate, acted unreasonably, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
The justices tossed out Jesus Santos Sanchez Reyes’ conviction of transportation of cocaine, giving false information to an officer, and driving with a suspended license. The defendant was arrested after a small amount of cocaine fell out from behind the driver’s sun visor, after he lowered it to retrieve his vehicle registration.
The arresting officer, from the City of Seaside in Monterey County, said he was driving in the opposite lane when he noticed the defendant’s vehicle lacked a front plate. He then executed a U-turn, noticed that the car had a front plate from Florida, and made the stop leading to the arrest.
The officer was unaware that Florida only issues one plate, except when the vehicle is a commercial truck weighing over 13 tons. Prosecutors argued that the stop was objectively reasonable, since the officer could not be expected to know that a distant state does not require a front plate.
California law says every vehicle must have a rear plate, as well as a front plate if two plates have been issued. California issues two plates to every vehicle except motorcycles.
The magistrate denied the motion to suppress, and the defendant agreed to plead guilty in exchange for three years probation.
On appeal, however, the defendant reiterated that the stop was objectively unreasonable, and the justices agreed.
Justice Eugene Premo rejected the prosecution’s reliance on People v. Glick (1988) 203 Cal.App.3d 796, which held that an officer’s mistake of law did not render a stop unreasonable. The officer in that case stopped a car that did not have a registration sticker attached to the rear plate, which was from New Jersey.
The officer was unaware that New Jersey requires that the annual sticker be attached to the windshield rather than the license plate. The vehicle, in fact, didn’t have the sticker—the vehicle was stolen from a California dealer and the plates were for a different vehicle—but the officer didn’t check for it.
The court upheld the stop, distinguishing People v. Teresinski (1982) 30 Cal.3d 822, in which the high court rejected a stop based on the presence of juveniles in a vehicles after the local curfew. The officer, the court reasoned, should have known that his city’s curfew ordinance only applied to juveniles who were loitering on the streets, not to those who were in cars.
The Glick court said the same rule could not be applied to an officer who had made numerous stops of vehicles from other states that require a sticker be attached to the license plate, and was not aware of the New Jersey exception.
In Reyes’ case, the prosecution argued that because Florida is a distant state and its law is unusual, the conviction should be upheld under Glick.
Premo, however, said the rule in the majority of jurisdictions is that a stop based on a mistake of law cannot be deemed objectively reasonable. Glick, he added, is distinguishable in that the officer there correctly suspected that the car was not lawfully registered; Reyes had not violated the Vehicle Code in any respect.
“If there are extraordinary circumstances that would render a mistake of law reasonable, this is not such a case,” the justice wrote. “Even if the officer is not expected to know the law of all 50 states, surely he is expected to know the California Vehicle Code, which does not require two license plates if the jurisdiction issues only one.”
“When the officer observed a vehicle with one out-of-state license plate mounted on the rear of the vehicle all he needed to know was whether the sister state issues one or two plates. This is not a factual ambiguity that can only be cleared up by stopping the vehicle and checking with the driver. It is a legal question. If the law enforcement officer does not know the answer, he or she is not authorized to make the stop anyway.”
The alternative, he wrote, would be to encourage officers to remain ignorant of the law.
The case is People v. Reyes, 11 S.O.S. 3259.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company