Wednesday, November 28, 2018

"Law enforcement officers are not average citizens"

In Hein v. North Carolina, 135 S.Ct. 530 (2014), the Supreme Court held that a police seizure based on an objectively reasonable mistake of law does not violate the Fourth Amendment.

This month, the Kansas Court of Appeals reminded us that not every mistake of law is objectively reasonable. An officer may not, for instance, reasonably claim confusion about the plain, unambiguous language of a statute or ordinance---even if that same law might confuse an average citizen. 

In State v. Lees, ___ P.3d ___, 2018 WL6005199 (Kan. App. Nov. 16, 2018), a police officer stopped Mr. Lees for a brake-light violation. But Mr. Lees did not commit a brake-light violation. While his left brake light was out, he had working middle and right brake lights. And that is all that Kansas law unambiguously requires. The Court had little sympathy for the officer's claim of confusion:

"[T]he Kansas statutes are clear that only two functioning brake lights are required. Reading K.S.A. 8-1708(a) and K.S.A. 8-1721(a) together, no reasonable officer would think that the law required brake lights to be spaced laterally as far as practicable and mounted at the same height, as Sperry wrongly believed; neither statute suggests such a requirement in any way. 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. They must reasonably study the laws they are duty bound to enforce. See Heien, 135 S.Ct. at 539-40."

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