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People v. Guthrie - 2015 NY Slip Op 02867, 25 N.Y.3d 130, 8 N.Y.S.3d 237, 30 N.E.3d 880

Rule:

Any exercise of police power under the Fourth Amendment, U.S. Const. amend. IV, and the New York State's constitutional corollary must be reasonable—a seizure by the police may not be arbitrary. A traffic stop is a seizure and is permissible under the Fourth Amendment and N.Y. Const. art. I, § 12 when a police officer has probable cause to believe that the driver of an automobile has committed a traffic violation. Probable cause, in turn, does not require proof sufficient to warrant a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt but merely information sufficient to support a reasonable belief that an offense has been or is being committed or that evidence of a crime may be found in a certain place. Thus, a police officer who can articulate credible facts establishing reasonable cause to believe that someone has violated a law has established a reasonable basis to effectuate a traffic stop.

Facts:

At approximately 12:15 a.m. on Sept. 27, 2009, a police officer stopped defendant Rebecca Guthrie's vehicle after observing the vehicle drive past a stop sign without stopping. The stop sign was located at the edge of a supermarket parking lot in the Village of Newark, Wayne County, New York, and defendant was exiting the lot onto a public street. Upon stopping defendant, the officer smelled a strong odor of alcohol. After defendant failed field sobriety tests and a breath analysis revealed that her blood alcohol level was over the legal limit, the officer arrested defendant and charged her with failing to stop at a stop sign in violation of Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1172 (a) and driving while intoxicated under Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1192 (2) and (3).

Asserting lack of probable cause for the initial stop, defendant moved to suppress the evidence resulting therefrom. The Newark Village Court took judicial notice of the location of the stop sign and that it was not registered in the Village Code (see Code of Village of Newark § 140-46). The court granted the suppression motion and dismissed the charges on the ground that the stop was not justified because the stop sign was not properly registered, as required by Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1100 (b). The County Court of Wayne County affirmed, concluding that because the stop sign was not legally authorized, the traffic stop was improper because the officer's good faith was insufficient to "blink away any irregularities in the laws he [was] attempting to enforce."

Issue:

Was there probable cause to make a traffic stop for a suspected violation of law in accordance with article I, § 12 of the New York State Constitution and the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution if the justification for the stop was based upon a police officer's objectively reasonable, but mistaken, view of the law.

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeals of New York concluded that where, as in the instant case, the officer's mistake about the law was reasonable, the stop was constitutional.

It was undisputed that the stop sign was of regulation color, height and dimension; its only defect was that it was not properly registered. Under Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1110 (c), there is a presumption that "official traffic-control devices [that] are placed in position approximately conforming to the requirements of this chapter . . . have been so placed by the official act or direction of lawful authority, unless the contrary shall be established by competent evidence." Although the stop sign was ultimately established to be unregistered, the presumption was indicative of the legislature's intent that traffic control devices appearing to be proper be assumed valid, absent proof to the contrary. In the court's view, "[t]he officer was not chargeable with knowledge that the" stop sign at issue was not registered under Newark Village Code § 140-46, which lists 130 registered stop signs in the village. Nor was he required to verify that the stop sign was valid before making the traffic stop—rather, the stop was based on probable cause because the officer reasonably believed that he had observed defendant violate the Vehicle and Traffic Law. Although the stop sign was not registered and, therefore, defendant did not violate Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1172 (a), the evidence recovered as a result of the traffic stop need not be suppressed.

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