- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - New York’s top court has upheld a traffic stop and drunken driving arrest where a policeman made the mistake of pulling over a driver who ran an unauthorized stop sign at the edge of a supermarket parking lot.

The Court of Appeals, divided 6-1, reversed two lower courts. They had concluded the September 2009 stop of Rebecca Guthrie by a village police officer was unjustified because the sign wasn’t properly registered with the village of Newark in Wayne County. They ruled that the subsequent evidence, including sobriety tests, should be suppressed and all charges dismissed.

The case now goes back to the village court.

Authorities have conceded Guthrie couldn’t be prosecuted for running the stop sign, but they argued the traffic stop was constitutionally justified because the officer believed he saw a violation.

The top court agreed, but said the test is whether a police mistake is based on belief about the law and the facts that’s “objectively reasonable,” and that an officer acting simply “in good faith” isn’t enough.

Judge Leslie Stein wrote that it wouldn’t have been reasonable for the arresting officer to have claimed ignorance of state traffic law that requires stop signs in parking lots must be registered to be valid.

“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,” Stein wrote. The code lists 130 of them, she wrote.

She rejected the purported “bright line rule” and supposed predictability as it’s been applied in midlevel Appellate Division rulings that police mistakes on the law invalidate traffic stops and evidence searches. The Court of Appeals has demonstrated it has “no trouble” determining the objective reasonableness of police mistakes, she wrote.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Judges Susan Read, Eugene Pigott, Sheila Abdus-Salaam and Eugene Fahey agreed.

In her dissent, Judge Jenny Rivera wrote that police stops based on mistakes in the law violate New York’s constitution and cannot provide the required probable cause for valid police search and seizure. That also promotes precision and predictability in judicial rulings, she wrote.

“If civilians are required to know the law, I see no reason for expecting less from those charged with enforcing it,” Rivera wrote. “We should not excuse an error about the basic foundation of an officer’s power, or discourage better comprehension of it.”

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