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Officer’s mistake about center high-mount stop lamp requirement was unreasonable, so stop was invalid

State v. Kim M. Lerdahl, 2014AP2119-CR, District 3, 8/4/15 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity (including briefs)

In an interesting decision that sheds some light on how to apply the newly-adopted “reasonable mistake of law” doctrine to traffic stops, State v. Houghton, 2015 WI 79, ___ Wis. 2d ___, ___ N.W.2d ___,  the court of appeals holds that it a police officer’s mistaken belief that the truck she stopped was required to have a center high-mount stop (or brake) lamp (CHMSL) was not a reasonable mistake of law and, therefore, the stop was unlawful.

Officer Roth stopped Lerdahl because she observed what she thought was a malfunctioning CHMSL on Lerdahl’s truck. But what Roth thought was a CHMSL was actually a white cargo light that doesn’t light up when the brakes are applied. Lerdahl’s 1992 model-year truck didn’t come with—and isn’t required to have—a CHMSL, for the rules require a CHMSL only for model-years 1994 or later, 49 C.F.R. § 571.108, at S5.1.1.27(a), and Wis. Admin. Code § Trans 305.15(5)(a). (¶¶2-3). Thus, the officer made “a mistake of law based on a mistake of fact”: Roth mistook Lerdahl’s cargo lamp for a CHMSL (mistake of fact) and she stopped Lerdahl believing that what she thought was a CHMSL was not working, in violation of § Trans 305.15(5)(a) (mistake of law). (¶9).

Rejecting the state’s argument that an officer shouldn’t be expected to know the age of the vehicle and how it affects the original-equipment requirements, the court holds Roth’s ignorance of the relevant regulations was not a reasonable mistake of law:

¶14      …[O]ur supreme court’s recent decision in Houghton does not excuse an officer’s complete lack of knowledge about the law, but only a reasonable mistake concerning it. And, as stated by Justice Kagan in her concurrence in Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S. Ct. 530 (2014), objectively reasonable mistakes of law are “exceedingly rare.” Heien, 135 S. Ct. at 541 (Kagan, J., concurring).

¶15      Citing Justice Kagan’s concurrence in Heien, our supreme court in Houghton considered what constitutes an objectively reasonable mistake of law:

A court tasked with deciding whether an officer’s mistake of law can support a seizure thus faces a straightforward question of statutory construction. If the statute is genuinely ambiguous, such that overturning the officer’s judgment requires hard interpretive work, then the officer has made a reasonable mistake. But if not, not. As the Solicitor General made the point at oral argument, the statute must pose a “really difficult” or “very hard question of statutory interpretation.”

Houghton, 2015 WI 79, ¶68 (citing Heien, 135 S. Ct. at 541 (Kagan, J., concurring)).

¶16      In Houghton, our supreme court determined that the officer’s mistaken interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 346.88 to prohibit the placement of any object in the front windshield was objectively reasonable. Houghton, 2015 WI 79, ¶70. The statute was ambiguous, the analysis of the statute was a “close call[,]” and “a reasonable judge could agree with the officer’s view.” Id., ¶¶70-71.

¶17      The administrative code provision at issue here is unambiguous. A working CHMSL is not required in every truck, but only those motor vehicles originally manufactured with one. See Wis. Admin. Code § Trans 305.15(5)(a) (December 2010). There is no room for interpretation. If a law enforcement officer is enforcing a law that clearly dictates certain terms to constitute a violation, the officer must know those terms in order to enforce the law. Roth’s enforcement of a law she fundamentally misunderstood was not reasonable without some evidence that she had been trained—or tried to obtain information—to distinguish which vehicles were originally manufactured with CHMSLs, thus requiring them to have a high-mounted stop lamp in working order, and evidence that she erroneously—but reasonably—believed she was seeing such a vehicle.

The parties argued this case as a simple mistake of fact case, but as we’ve seen the court doesn’t resolve it that way. To the state, an officer shouldn’t have to know the original equipment requirements for the particular vehicle or even the model year of the vehicle before making the stop, and thus essentially claims that the general nature of the rule about having a functioning CHMSL should be enough to justify reasonable suspicion (if not probable cause). Lerdahl, for her part, likened this case to State v. Conaway, 2010 WI App 7, 323 Wis. 2d 250, 779 N.W.2d 182, which invalidated a stop based on suspicion that a car’s window tinting was unlawful because the officer didn’t have any training or experience that allowed him to judge the technical standards of fact relating to the amount of tinting allowed; similarly, the officer here didn’t have training or knowledge to judge whether Lerdahl’s truck had to have a CHMSL.

Note that § Trans 305.15(5)(a) clearly states that vehicles originally manufactured with a CHMSL have to have one, which obviously means that those vehicles not originally manufactured with a CHMSL are not covered. And the officer did notice the light had a white lens rather than a red one, which would naturally lead one to believe it wasn’t designed as a CHMSL. But you don’t know from § Trans 305.15(5)(a) that vehicles had to be manufactured with a CHMSL starting in 1994; nor does the provision refer to the federal rule to look at to find that 1994 date. This makes it unlike § Trans 305.15(1), for example, which does include various dates for when various equipment requirements took effect. Does the lack of dates in § Trans 305.15(5)(a) make it “genuinely ambiguous,” and thus create an opening to argue the officer made a reasonable mistake of law? We’ll see if the supreme court takes this one up.

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