11/21/2018Kansas Cracks Down On Reasonable Police Mistake Traffic Stops
Kansas appellate court rejects reasonable mistake theory over a traffic stop involving a brake light law settled ten years ago.
The US Supreme Court four years ago gave police the ability to stop and search motorists who did not actually violate the law. The Heien ruling (view case) created a doctrine allowing law enforcement to make "reasonable" mistakes about the interpretation of legal matters. The Kansas Court of Appeals on Friday decided to make it clear that the high court ruling would not be a free pass for misconduct.
On July 10, 2017, Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Reed Sperry was watching the Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane when he saw motorist Aaron Matthew Lees pulling out of the parking lot. His car had a left brake light out, but the right-side and center brake lights remained functional.
The stop allowed the trooper to conduct a driving under the influence (DUI) investigation. A breathalyzer test estimated that Lees was just over the legal limit of 0.08 blood alcohol content. Facing serious charges, Lees moved to have the case thrown out because he never should have been stopped in the first place. The Sumner County district court and the three-judge appellate panel all agreed with Lees.
The Kansas Supreme Court in 2008 ruled that a motor vehicle only needs two functional brake lights under state law, and Lees had two working lights. State prosecutors insisted that the Heien case, which involved a brake light law in North Carolina, applies here and that the trooper made a reasonable mistake. The three-judge panel disagreed.
"Granted it may be reasonable for the average citizen to believe the law likely requires left and right brake lights, but law enforcement officers are not average citizens," Judge Thomas E. Malone wrote for the appellate court. "Sperry is a law enforcement officer, not an average citizen, and he is expected to understand the laws that he is duty bound to enforce."
The judges found nothing ambiguous about the wording of Kansas law, and whatever remaining doubt was resolved by the state Supreme Court's decision a decade ago.
"In sum, because Sperry's mistaken belief that Kansas Statutes Annotated 8-1708(a) and KSA 8-1721(a) required functional left and right brake lights was objectively unreasonable, the stop of Lees' vehicle was invalid from the start," Judge Malone wrote. "We conclude the district court did not err in granting Lees' motion to suppress the evidence."
A copy of the ruling is available in a 200k PDF file at the source link below.