Tuesday, February 15, 2011

DUI Appeal of the Day (DAD) - Mistake of Law, Broken Stop Lamps, Illegal Seizure

In Goens v. State of Indiana, --- N.E.2d ----, 2011 WL 490848 (Ind.App.) an officer stopped the defendant for a non-operating stop lamp. At the hearing on the motion two suppress, the judge determined that the right rear lamp was not working, but the left rear and high mount were operable and working. Finding that two out of three of the vehicle's stop lamps were operating at the time of the stop, the trial court denied Goens's motion to suppress after concluding that it was reasonable for the officer to stop the vehicle for one inoperable stop lamp, if for no other reason than to inform the driver that the light was burned out.

On appeal, the court first reviewed the Indiana statute on stop lamps. Applying the rule of statutory construction tat "[p]enal statutes should be construed strictly against the State and ambiguities should be resolved in favor of the accused.", it found that the statute only required one working tail lamp.

Then, it found that the officer's mistake of law (as opposed to mistake of fact) did not justify the stop of defendant's vehicle, and granted the motion to suppress, stating:

“Although a law enforcement officer's good faith belief that a person has committed a violation will justify a traffic stop, an officer's mistaken belief about what constitutes a violation does not amount to good faith. Such discretion is not constitutionally permissible.” State v. Rager, 883 N.E.2d 136, 139-40 (Ind.Ct.App.2008) (citations omitted); see also Meredith v. State, 906 N.E.2d 867, 870 (Ind.2009). As well as having a constitutional dimension, this limitation is one of common sense. While we as citizens desire and expect law enforcement officers to enforce the requirements of state statutes as they pertain to motor vehicles, if the condition of our motor vehicles clearly and visibly meets these requirements, we should not be subject to a traffic stop on suspicion of an alleged violation thereof. Because the condition of Goens's vehicle could not reasonably appear to violate applicable Indiana statutes at the time it was observed by Officer Lengerich, the vehicle's condition could not and did not support reasonable suspicion for the traffic stop. We therefore conclude that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied Goens's motion to

Note: Interestingly, the opinion acknowledged that federal law requires a vehicle of this nature to be equipped with 3 stop lamps. However, it did employ this regulation in interpreting their own state's statute......

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