People v. Rebecca Guthrie


Wayne County Court order dated July 22, 2013, affirming judgment of conviction. Read, J., granted leave March 5, 2014.
ISSUES PRESENTED: (1) Whether running an unauthorized stop sign provided probable cause for a traffic stop. (2) Blood alcohol evidence as the “fruit of the poisonous tree.”

Background facts and issue: The defendant was stopped for running a stop sign, then arrested under the VTL for failure to stop and DWI after the administration of a field sobriety test.  The Village court suppressed the resulting evidence and dismissed the charges because the stop sign had not been registered in the village code, as required by the VTL, thus negating probable cause since there was no violation, and the County Court affirmed.  The Court of Appeals granted leave to determine whether mistakes of law rendered stops unconstitutional.


Held: Because the officer's mistake of law was objectively reasonable, the stop was not unconstitutional.  In a 6-1 opinion, the Court rejected that it had ever drawn a distinction between mistakes of fact (which historically do not negate probable cause) and mistakes of law, and cited its prior memorandum decision in People v. Estrella as precedent for upholding a stop based on a mistake of law.  The Court rejected that the State Constitution provides more protection than the Federal Constitution in this area.


In a lengthy dissent, Judge Rivera stated that the ruling altered established law, limited People v. Bigelow (which rejected the good-faith exception for probable cause), incentivized police officers to not learn the law they are tasked with enforcing while rewarding their errors, and rested on an overreading of Estrella, a "cursory five sentence memorandum opinion."  


CAL Observes:  While everything that Judge Rivera writes rings true, drawing a distinction between mistakes of fact and mistakes of law does seem, as the majority suggests, arbitrary and confusing.  The officer's action here does seem objectively reasonable, and it does seem sowmehat unrealistic to expect the police to know that, as here, an otherwise unremarkable stop sign, actually violated the VTL.  One takeaway - the majority was not swayed by the long line of Appellate Division decision hewing to the mistake of fact/mistake of law distinction, proving once again that it ain't so (NYS law-wise) until the Court of Appeals says it is.