Law School Case Brief
State v. Hurley - 2015 VT 46, 198 Vt. 552, 117 A.3d 433
The United States Supreme Court has held that reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify an investigatory stop may exist even when the suspicion is based on a mistake of law (i.e., an erroneous understanding of the scope of a legal prohibition), as long as that mistake is objectively reasonable. The Court reasoned: Reasonable suspicion arises from the combination of an officer's understanding of the facts and of the relevant law. The officer may be reasonably mistaken on either ground. Just because mistakes of law cannot justify either the imposition or the avoidance of criminal liability, it does not follow that they cannot justify an investigatory stop.
In June 2013, defendant Robert K. Hurley was driving through downtown Bennington when he was stopped by a police officer. The police officer stopped the defendant after the officer saw a pine-tree-shaped air freshener hanging from the defendant's rearview mirror. The State argued that hanging an air freshener from the rearview mirror violates violates Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 23, § 1125. The defendant argued that hanging an air freshener from the rearview mirror does not violate that statute if the item does not materially obstruct the driver's vision. As a result of observations the officer made in connection with the stop, and ensuing events, defendant was charged with driving over the legal limit and driving under the influence of alcohol in violation of 23 V.S.A. § 1201(a)(1) and (2). Defendant moved to suppress and dismiss. The State did not allege that the officer believed that the air freshener obstructed defendant's vision. At the subsequent bench trial, the officer testified that a driver of the car could “observe the road directly ahead,” notwithstanding the presence of the air freshener. The officer also testified that the stop was based upon what he believed § 1125 prohibited -- the hanging of any item on the inside of a windshield without regard to whether the item materially obstructs the driver's vision. The trial court denied the suppression motion, concluding that the statute unambiguously prohibits the hanging of all objects from rearview mirrors, except those specifically exempted by the statute. Defendant was subsequently convicted and appealed his conviction on the ground that the trial court erred in denying his suppression motion.
Did the trial court err in denying the motion to supress?
An operator of a motor vehicle violates Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 23, § 1125 only when an object hanging behind the windshield materially obstructed the driver's view; therefore, a traffic stop based upon the statute is impermissible unless the officer can demonstrate a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the hanging object materially obstructed the driver's view. Although the officer stopped defendant, who had a pine-tree-shaped air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror, in the mistaken belief that § 1125 prohibited the hanging of any item on the inside of a windshield without regard to whether it materially obstructed the driver's vision, his misapprehension was an objectively reasonable one under the circumstances, given that several Vermont trial courts had been split on the question, and thus the Fourth Amendment did not require exclusion of the evidence gathered from the traffic stop.
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