People v. Robin Pena
Issue: Whether a police officer made an “objectively reasonable mistake of law” in stopping Robin Pena’s vehicle, which had working brake lights on both sides as required by the VTL, but had a defective center brake light, which is not required by the VTL.
Factual Background: Police pulled over Robin Pena while he was driving in the Bronx because his center taillight was not working. After telling the officers he “had a few beers” and failing sobriety tests, Mr. Pena was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. He moved to suppress the evidence on the ground that it was the result of an illegal stop, contending that Vehicle and Traffic Law (VTL) § 375(40)(b) does not require a functioning middle brake light. The statute states, “Every motor vehicle ... shall be equipped with at least two stop lamps, one on each side, each of which shall display a red to amber light visible at least five hundred feet from the rear of the vehicle when the brake of such vehicle is applied.” The prosecution argued that the stop was lawful because the police made a “reasonable mistake of law.”
The judicial hearing officer agreed with Mr. Pena, as did the Appellate Term, First Department. Both held that VTL § 375(40)(b) is clear as to the exact number of lights required and their location on the vehicle; there being no ambiguity in the statute that would support a mistaken belief of law, the evidence had to be suppressed.
Held: A plurality of the court held that the stop was permissible, albeit on disparate grounds, and reversed. Relying on two other VTL Sections—Section 376 (1)(a) and Section 375(19)— Judges Stein, Fahey, and Garcia concluded that the VTL could reasonably be read to require that all lights be in working condition; therefore, the officer’s mistake was “objectively reasonable.” In contrast, Judges Feinman and DiFiore concluded that VTL § 375(40)(b) did require a functioning center light, therefore the officer made no mistake of law.
CAL Observes: Judge Wilson’s dissent hit the nail on the head: the plurality not only shed zero light on what VTL § 375(40)(b) requires, but gave short shrift to motorists’ Fourth Amendment rights. Because the plurality could not agree on what the legislature intended, the plurality was unequipped to determine whether the officer made a mistake in stopping Mr. Pena, let alone whether that mistake was reasonable. Without clear guidance, motorists are at the whim of police officers emboldened to enforce purported “mistakes” of law rather than the law itself. This outcome is particularly egregious considering that the VTL Section at issue could not be clearer: no center taillight is required. As Judge Rivera asked in her dissent, “Why incentivize mistaken, unlawful stops? Instead, why not reject a rule that increases the opportunity for potentially dangerous and life-threatening encounters between armed officers and innocent motorists?”