New York Court of Appeals Abandons The Law

Among the few saving graces of the New York Court of Appeals was its stand-alone protection of constitutional rights.  Not that it was some long-haired hippie throw-back to the Warren Court, but that there was a long tradition of the top court refusing to trot in lock-step with the United States Supreme Court when it came to finding novel excuses to ignore the Bill of Rights, or the local flavor, Article I, § 12 of the New York Constitution.

Say bah-bye, as the Court of Appeals, in an opinion by one of its newest judges, Leslie Stein, capitulated to one of the most doctrinally bizarre and incomprehensible decisions ever issued by the Supremes, Heien v. North Carolina.  So much for New York protecting constitutional rights. So much for New York defending its own Constitution. And reason? Be damned.

Lest anyone forget the brilliance of Heien, the Supreme Court held that a police officer can possess probable cause not only for a mistake of fact, which is disturbing enough, but for a “reasonable” mistake of law.

The phrase “objectively reasonable” is a rhetorical device to soothe the fevered brow, as its incantation elevates the cop’s screw-up to a special plane, when it means nothing more than a judge, who will rule as a proxy for the objectively reasonable person, says, “meh, I guess anybody could make that mistake.  Law is hard. Law is confusing. Can we really expect police to know the law they are charged to enforce?”  Yes. We can. 

Or, more accurately, yes, we could, but not after People v. Guthrie, in which the Court found it objectively reasonable that a village cop didn’t know which stop signs were lawful within his own village, because it’s so very, very hard for police to know the details of the laws of the tiny village (population: 9,145) they’re expected to enforce.

In a peculiarly crafty move, the Court of Appeals tries to create the appearance that this isn’t a monumental swing away from black letter doctrine and its once-admired embrace of reason by referring to a 2008 opinion, People v. Estrella, which said…well, since it’s only one substantive paragraph long, here’s the decision in its entirety:

The courts below did not err in declining to suppress the cocaine recovered from the defendant’s car. The record supports the finding that the officer who stopped the car reasonably believed the windows to be over-tinted in violation of Vehicle and Traffic Law § 375 (12-a) (b) (3). The officer was not chargeable with knowledge that the tinting was legal in Georgia, where the car was registered.

Boom. The case addressed whether a New York police officer was charged with knowledge of Georgia law, and concluded he was not.  Some, lawyers for instance, would find it remarkably easy to distinguish the duty of a police officer to know, or at least be charged with the knowledge of, the laws he is authorized to enforce from the laws of every foreign jurisdiction. No sweat.

But not the Court of Appeals, which ironically (and gymnastically) went on for pages discussing the significance of the one substantive paragraph decision of Estrella. It’s hard work contorting a simple decision into one undermining a state’s traditional jurisprudence.

Similarly here, we are not saying that it would have been objectively reasonable for the arresting officer to have claimed ignorance of the requirement in Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1100 (b) that a stop sign in a parking lot 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.

Each and every stop sign?  All ten of them? All 100 of them? Isn’t that precisely what he’s expected to know, given that he’s got a gun and might shoot to kill someone in the course of a stop? This is way too much of a burden for cops?

As pointed out by Judge Jenny Rivera in dissent, the Guthrie decision, like Heien, provides no incentive for police to, you know, know the law they’re paid to enforce.  “Meh,” says Judge Stein:

Contrary to the dissent’s concerns that our refusal to expand the mistake of fact/mistake of law distinction to the context of traffic stops provides a disincentive for police officers to know the law (Dissent Op at 7-8), a rule that even objectively reasonable mistakes of law cannot provide a basis for a traffic stop would do little to protect the rights of the accused or encourage officers to better learn the law (see generally Robinson, 97 NY2d at 351). As the Supreme Court explained, the requirement that the mistake be objectively reasonable prevents officers from “gain[ing any] Fourth Amendment advantage through a sloppy study of the laws [they are] duty-bound to enforce” (Heien, 135 S Ct at 539-540).

Because the Supreme Court said so is not an argument based on logic, guys, but an appeal to authority.  But as long as the Court of Appeals is abandoning any pretense of offering a rational basis for its ruling, beyond Heien said so, the final insult is its punt on why “ignorance of the law” is no excuse for you, but a complete defense for cops:

Finally, there is no unfairness in forgiving a police officer’s objectively reasonable mistake of law while refusing to allow an individual to “escape criminal liability based on a mistaken understanding of the law” (Heien, 135 S Ct at 540).  Neither the Supreme Court nor this Court have held that “the government can[] impose criminal liability based on a mistaken understanding of the law;” rather, “just because mistakes of law cannot justify either the imposition or the avoidance of criminal liability, it does not follow that they cannot justify an
investigatory stop” (id.).

Well, there ya go. “It does not follow,” because . . . (id.).  The vapidity of this decision, more than being facially transparent from the Court’s exhaustive discussion of a one-paragraph opinion in a laughably distinguishable case, is an embrace of the nightmarishly dismissive Supreme Court decision in Heien, that substitutes the “close enough” of horseshoes for the rigorous demands of law.

As Judge Rivera notes:

Society relies on police officers to enforce laws based on what the laws say, not on an officer’s mistaken belief. Excusing an officer’s mistake of law removes an incentive to learning the law. While the realities of police work rightly justify tolerance of an officer’s mistake of fact, there is no similar basis to accept or excuse an officer’s error regarding what the law permits and forbids.


Since police are entrusted with authority to safeguard all members of our society, we should not adopt a rule that rewards an error concerning the legitimacy of the officer’s exercise of such power.

But that, of course, was back when a citizens’ constitutional right to be left alone was valued more highly than a cop’s right to be ignorant of the laws of the jurisdiction that paid his salary and which he was authorized to enforce.  The dissent argues:

We expect an officer to know the law of this state with precision because that law is the source
of the officer’s authority.

Apparently, it’s just too hard to expect cops to exercise their power based on what the law actually says, and instead they deserve a New York tummy rub for doing their job based on the law’s feelz.  After all, they have a shield, gun and bullets, and it’s just too much of a burden to demand they only use them consistent with their precise lawful authority.

8 thoughts on “New York Court of Appeals Abandons The Law

  1. Peter Gerdes

    Maybe I’m just missing it but I didn’t see the name (or better yet a link) to the decision you are discussing.

    Anyway, while it seems like the court didn’t extend the fact/law distinction to this case I’m unclear how that distinction would have rendered a different result. While the difference between facts and laws can be fuzzy (I’m particularly thinking of things like the breadth of a patent claim….or maybe certain administrative regulations/findings) this case seems to fall fairly clearly on the fact side of the divide.

    After all, the city does not pass individual legislation for each stop sign in it’s jurisdiction but one law making it illegal not to stop for any registered stop sign. It is factual matter whether or not a particular stop sign is registered just like it would be a factual matter whether or not there really was a stop sign erected facing the driver at a particular location.

    Having said this, I am inclined to agree with you that this decision is wrongly decided. In a town with only ten stop signs it doesn’t seem to be an objectively reasonable mistake of fact not to know which stop signs are registered (short of some reason to believe there was a recent change). But this suggests the real problem isn’t the need to distinguish law and fact but instead to impose a requirement making officers responsible for both facts and law known to the jurisdiction they serve…or something like that.


    The argument that allowing objectively reasonable mistakes of law doesn’t diminish the incentive of cops to know the law is particularly absurd. It either entails that, even if the cop knew the activity he stopped someone for was legal, the stop is justified as long as it was objectively reasonable for an officer not to realize the individual wasn’t breaking the law or that by learning the details of laws it would be objectively reasonable to be unaware of the officer reduces his power to stop people.

    1. SHG Post author

      1. Yes, you missed it. Look harder.
      2. No, it’s a question of law whether a Stop Sign is a lawful traffic control device because it has been duly registered as such by the legislative body. Distinctions between questions of fact and law are often hard to make, and can have components of each according to how one frames the question. In this case, it quite clearly is.
      3. Yes, it’s patently absurd. Hence, this post.

      1. Aaron

        It’s a question of law, but not one of statutory construction. I had hoped that the guidelines articulated in Justice Kagan’s concurrence in Heien would limit the damage done by the majority opinion, but it looks like those go out the window where the mistake of law doesn’t involve the interpretation of text.

        I wonder if these mistakes of law will turn out to be “exceedingly rare”.

      2. Peter Gerdes

        Thanks for the information me and showing me the link I missed.

        Now that I got a chance to look at the decision I see that “registered” here meant registered in the city municipal code (so yes it was literally a matter of law) not merely entered on some list maintained by some city clerk.

  2. David Woycechowsky

    “Well, there ya go. ‘It does not follow,’ because . . . (id.).”

    I lol’d (despite the fact that this is a serious matter, I hasten to add).

  3. Brian E

    As a fellow NY resident, I thank you for taking the time to post this. It is a very informative and insightful article.

  4. Pingback: The Walter Scott Murder: Not Even The Stop Was “Righteous” | Simple Justice

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