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State v Cartwright – 2 brake lights and a statute is not enough to avoid traffic stop

State v. Cartwright, A14A1392, September 24, 2014. The State appealed after Allison Cartwright had her DUI dismissed in Cobb County State Court after a motion hearing where the Trial Court found that Cartwright had not violated a traffic law requiring only two operational brake lights by having two operational brake lights but an inoperable center brake light. OCGA § 40-8-25 (b), which provides, in pertinent part, that “[i]f a motor vehicle is manufactured with two brake lights, both must be operational.”

The Court of Appeals disagreed and found that “if the officer acting in good faith believes that an unlawful act has been committed, his actions are not rendered improper by a later determination that the defendant’s actions were not a crime according to a technical legal definition or distinction determined to exist in the penal statute.” State v. Hammang, 249 Ga. App. 811 (549 SE2d 440) (2001) (officer’s honest but mistaken belief that defendant had violated traffic law by driving without headlights on through poorly lit intersection when it was “almost dark outside” provided reasonable articulable suspicion for a traffic stop.)

The Georgia Court of Appeals continues to ignore a legion of U.S. Supreme Court authority and federal court authority flatly rejecting the police officer good faith exception to the 4th Amendment. The United States Supreme Court has been explicit. “Our cases make clear that an arresting officer’s state of mind (except for the facts that he knows) is irrelevant to the existence of probable cause. See, Whren v. the United States, 517 U.S. 806, 812-813, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996)  (reviewing cases); Arkansas v. Sullivan, 532 U.S. 769, 121 S.Ct. 1876, 149 L.Ed.2d 994 (2001) (per curiam). . “The Fourth Amendment’s concern with ‘reasonableness’ allows certain actions to be taken in certain circumstances, whatever the subjective intent.” Whren, supra, at 814, 116  S.Ct. 1769. “Evenhanded law enforcement is best achieved by the application of objective standards of conduct, rather than standards that depend upon the subjective state of mind of the officer.” Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 138, 110 S.Ct. 2301, 110 L.Ed.2d 112 (1990).”

Also, several courts have held that a mistake of law as to the applicability of a statute will not provide the basis for a valid stop. United States v. Leal, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 27341 (11th Cir. 2003); See also, Hameen v. State, 246 Ga. App. 599, 600 (2000) (all citizens, including law enforcement officers, are presumed to know the law, and their ignorance of it is no excuse.); United States v. King, 244 F.3d 736, 739 (9th Cir. 2001) (indicating that when “‘an officer makes a traffic stop based on a mistake of law, the stop violates the Fourth Amendment.’” (quoting United States v. Twilley, 222 F.3d 1092, 1096 (9th Cir. 2000); United States v. Ramirez,  115 F. Supp. 2d 918 (W.D. Tenn. 2000) (finding “there is no good-faith exception to warrantless stops”). Just as every person is presumed to know the law and so will not be justified in actions due to ignorance of the law, our sworn civil servants should be held to the same standard. See generally, U.S. v. Chanthasouxat, 342 F.3d 1271(11th Cir. 2003)(holding that no matter how reasonable or understandable, a mistake can not provide the objectively reasonable grounds for reasonable suspicion or probable cause to justify a traffic stop.) Gary v. State, 262 Ga. 573, 422 S.E.2d 426 (1992)(holding in the context of a good faith execution of a warrant there is no good-faith exception to the 4th Amendment relying on O.C.G.A. 17-5-30(b)).

Contra, In The Interest of B.C.G., 235 Ga. App. 1 (1998) (Nevertheless, where a statute upon which an officer bases his stop is later determined to have not been violated, the stop still must be “justified by specific, articulable facts sufficient to give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.” ) The Court of Appeals has appeared to have blended the Federal Good Faith Exception for mistakes of fact into mistakes of law which are uniformly rejected by Federal Courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Hopefully, this case will be taken to the Georgia Supreme Court if not the United States Supreme Court to clear up apparent the confusion.

-Author: George Crea

Atlanta DUI Lawyer | DUI Atlanta