Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Left Turn Into Far Right Lane Did Not Support Traffic Stop Under NM Law

U.S. v. Nicholson, 2013 WL 3487743 (7/12/13) (N.M.) (Published) - The defendant was stopped after he turned left at an intersection and drove into the far right lane. The relevant New Mexico statute, N.M. Stat. Ann. ยง 66-7-322 requires people to turn into particular lanes under certain circumstances, such as turning right and turning left where there are markings showing you into what lane to turn, but it doesn't really say you have to go into the left lane if you're turning left into a street with more than one lane on that side of the median. As this case was being appealed, the New Mexico Court of Appeals interpreted the statute not to require a left turn into the left lane. All 3 judges agreed that was a correct interpretation given the specific prohibitions regarding some turning but the silence in the defendant's situation.Judges Briscoe and McKay held that the detention for what was not a violation of the statute violated the Fourth Amendment, even if the statute was ambiguous. They held, as the 10th has said before, that mistakes of law by an officer are always objectively unreasonable. They justified that stance on the grounds that: officers are supposed to enforce the laws; the rule provides an incentive for officers to make certain they understand the law; ignorance of the law is not an excuse for defendants and shouldn't be for officers; on plenty of occasions the officer can justify a stop based on laws the officer hadn't thought of at the time; officers can seek a warrant to clarify a statute's meaning; reasonable mistakes of fact don't invalidate a stop; some mistakes of law are excusable, e.g. re: legal ownership. The majority refused to consider the government's arguments for a good faith exception and that the defendant violated other traffic laws because the government had not raised those issues below, leaving the record without facts to support its claims.

Judge Gorsuch dissented in an opinion that's longer than the majority's. He believes a totality of the circumstances, case-by-case test should apply when the relevant statute is ambiguous, just like a lot of other 4th Amendment reasonableness determinations. Relevant considerations would be the officer's training, how other officers understand the statute or even how do many New Mexicans perceive the law. The judge worries about a legal regime that discourages officers from "investigating facts thoroughly enough or attend to the Constitution's commands carefully enough." The totality test is a sufficient protection for the 4th He feels distinguishing between mistakes of law and mistakes of facts can be "vexing." And then there are the mistakes of a man who takes an umbrella and thinks theft is not a crime and one that thinks the umbrella is his. What a tangle! Judge Gorsuch also questions whether the 10th's precedent really conforms to the majority's holding. He believes on remand the d. ct. could address the good faith question as well, determining if the officer acted with deliberate or reckless indifference. The government shouldn't be faulted for not raising good faith when it won and didn't need to raise the matter.