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4/8/2015
New York High Court Allows Cops To Be Wrong About The Law
Ignorance of the law is only an excuse for police officers, according to a ruling by the highest court in the state.

Judge Leslie E. Stein
New York motorists are legally able to blow through any unregistered stop sign in a parking lot, but police can pull them over anyway. The state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, on Tuesday restored the drunk driving charges against Rebecca Guthrie, a driver who had been stopped just after midnight on September 27, 2009 for ignoring an unregistered stop sign in a parking lot in Newark -- something that is not a crime in New York.

"The provisions of this title relating to obedience to stop signs... shall apply to a parking lot only when the legislative body of any city, village or town has adopted a local law, ordinance, rule or regulation ordering such signs, signals, devices, or regulations," New York Code Section 1100(b) states.

The court majority found that the officer who stopped Guthrie that morning was wrong about his understanding of this particular law but that it did not matter. In accordance with the US Supreme Court's Heien v. North Carolina decision from last year (view case), the New York justices reasoned the officer's actions needed only be objectively reasonable.

"We are not saying that it would have been objectively reasonable for the arresting officer to have claimed ignorance of the requirement in Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1100 (b) that a stop sign in a parking lot be registered to be valid," Judge Leslie E. Stein wrote for the majority. "We are saying that the stop was nonetheless constitutionally justified because the officer was not chargeable with knowing each and every stop sign that was registered under the Newark Village Code."

Judge Jenny Rivera believes her colleagues are undermining the constitution with an interpretation of the law that departs from New York's tradition of offering greater protection than the federal courts.

"Society relies on police officers to enforce laws based on what the laws say, not on an officer's mistaken belief," Judge Rivera wrote in her dissent. "Excusing an officer's mistake of law removes an incentive to learning the law. While the realities of police work rightly justify tolerance of an officer's mistake of fact, there is no similar basis to accept or excuse an officer's error regarding what the law permits and forbids.... If civilians are required to know the law, I see no reason for expecting less from those charged with enforcing it."

A copy of the decision is available in a 50k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File New York v. Guthrie (Court of Appeals, State of New York, 4/7/2015)



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