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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Fourth Amendment Stops and Mistake of Law in California

Via, I learned about the California Court of Appeal case of People v. Campuzano. In that case, an officer stopped a defendant who was riding his bicycle on a sidewalk. The officer believed that the defendant was violating a section of the San Diego Municipal Code that prohibits biking on the sidewalk in front of a commercial establishment.

As it turns out, the defendant was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk in front of a business that had obviously been closed for some time. The officer stopping the defendant acknowledged that while that business was closed, there were no residences in the area, and argued that the defendant was riding his bicycle in a "commercial area."

But the Court of Appeal held that the law did not prohibit the defendant from riding his bike on a sidewalk in a "commercial area." Instead, looking to the text of the section, the Court held that the San Diego Municipal Code only prohibited the defendant from riding a bike in front of a commercial establishment. The defendant did not violate the law because the building in front of which the defendant was stopped had been out-of-business for some time.

The Court held that the officer's stop was therefore based on a mistake of law and that even if the officer made this mistake in good faith, the evidence obtained as a result of this stop should have been suppressed. From the opinion:

In the instant matter, the officers’ interpretation of San Diego Municipal Code section 84.09, subdivision (a) was a mistake of law. An officer's erroneous interpretation of California law or a local ordinance is generally considered unreasonable. (People v. Lopez (1987) 197 Cal. App. 3d 93, 101 [good faith does not excuse erroneous belief that statute prohibiting possession of open container of alcohol in vehicle on highway applies to a vehicle in a parking lot].) Courts usually view mistakes of law as unreasonable because when the wording of a statute or ordinance is reasonably clear, a contrary ruling would provide an incentive to remain ignorant of the law. (People v. Teresinski (1982) 30 Cal. 3d 822, 832.) A traffic stop based on a mistake of law is unreasonable and not subject to the good-faith exception. (People v. White (2003) 107 Cal. App. 4th636, 643; see also, In re Arthur J. (1987) 193 Cal. App. 3d 781 [good faith did not excuse an officer’s mistake regarding hours covered by local curfew ordinance].) The officers did not have reasonable cause to stop and detain the defendant based upon San Diego Municipal Code section 84.09, subdivision (a) when their only observation of him was in front of the former Lee’s Auto Repair, a business no longer in operation. The People failed to prove the sidewalk was in front of a “commercial business establishment.”
This opinion is worth noting because of the Supreme Court's impending decision in Heien v. North Carolina. There, the Court took up the question: "Whether a police officer’s mistake of law can provide the individualized suspicion that the Fourth Amendment requires to justify a traffic stop." Analysis on Heien is available here and here. The Court heard arguments on October 6, 2014.

While the California Court of Appeal has taken a clear position on whether officers' mistake of law can form a basis for a stop, Campuzano's impact may be short lived. The Truth in Evidence Rule in Article One, Section 28(f)(2) of the California Constitution (also known as "Proposition 8") limits the constitutional exclusion of evidence in criminal cases to the boundaries established by the United States Supreme Court. In In re Lance W., the California Supreme Court noted:

We agree that Proposition 8 did not repeal either section 13 or section 24 of article I. The substantive scope of both provisions remains unaffected by Proposition 8. What would have been an unlawful search or seizure in this state before the passage of that initiative would be unlawful today, and this is so even if it would pass muster under the federal Constitution. (3b) What Proposition 8 does is to eliminate a judicially created remedy for violations of the search and seizure provisions of the federal or state Constitutions, through the exclusion of evidence so obtained, except to the extent that exclusion remains federally compelled.
Under the Truth in Evidence Rule, the scope of the exclusionary rule for unlawfully-obtained evidence is governed by federal constitutional law rather than California constitutional law. If the Supreme Court ends up concluding that an officer's mistake of law can form the reasonable suspicion necessary to justify a stop, then Heien will effectively overrule Campuzano, since the United States Supreme Court has the final word on the extent of the Fourth Amendment's exclusionary rule.

For those practicing criminal law in California, the stakes in Heien just got a little bit higher. When the decision is released, I will be sure to note how the Supreme Court ultimately rules on the issue and what its ruling will mean for California criminal procedure.

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