New York State has long granted greater Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule protection to defendants under its holdings than federal courts have.  One example is found when a police officer in good faith bases a stop and search of a defendant upon a mistaken belief about the law.  Under the federal “good faith” exception, a mistaken view of the law is not necessarily fatal to a police officer’s illegal stop and search of a defendant.  In contrast, the New York Court of Appeals held in People v. Bigelow, 66 N.Y.2d 417 (1985), that there is no “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule.  Thus, under Bigelow, even when a police officer in good faith relies upon a mistaken view of the law, the fruits of any search and seizure based upon this mistaken view are subject to suppression under the exclusionary rule.

On April 7, 2015, the New York Court of Appeals carved out an exception to Bigelow that may water down its earlier rejection of the “good faith” exception.  In People v. Guthrie, ___N.Y.3d___ (No. 50, April 7, 2015), the Court held that a traffic stop made pursuant to a police officer’s objectively reasonable, but mistaken, view of the law is nonetheless constitutional under both the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and Article I, Section 12 of the New York State Constitution.

In Guthrie, a police officer stopped the defendant for passing a stop sign.  Upon interviewing the defendant during the traffic stop, he smelled a strong odor of alcohol.  After failing field sobriety tests, the defendant was arrested for Driving While Intoxicated.  The defendant moved to suppress the evidence resulting from the traffic stop because the stop sign was illegal under the N.Y. Vehicle and Traffic Law (“VTL”).  Under Section 1100(b), the VTL requires all stop signs to be registered.  In Ms. Guthrie’s case, the stop sign was not registered as required by VTL 1100(b).  Consistent with Bigelow, the lower court suppressed the stop and dismissed the charges.

The Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal on the grounds that, while mistaken, the police officer’s belief that Ms. Guthrie violated the law when she passed the unregistered stop sign was “reasonable.”  In so doing, the Court carved out a “reasonableness” exception to New York’s earlier refusal to apply the “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule.  The Court cited prior holdings that the Fourth Amendment and New York’s Article I, Section 12 require that any exercise of police power must be reasonable, and that any police seizure may not be arbitrary. People v. Robinson, 97 N.Y.2d 341, 353 (2001).   Going further, the Court cited the recent Supreme Court case of Heien v. North Carolina, ___ U.S.___ (2014), which held that the Fourth Amendment can tolerate objectively reasonable mistakes by a police officer, whether they be mistakes of fact or law.

Aligning itself with the Supreme Court in Heien, the Court of Appeals insists here that it still adheres to its Bigelow rule rejecting the “good faith” exception.  It says that rather than ask whether a police officer relied upon a mistaken view of the law in good faith, the determinative question is rather whether the police officer’s mistake was objectively reasonable.

The lesson here is that those facing prosecution should turn to experienced counsel that stays abreast of these latest legal developments in order to maximize opportunities to challenge the prosecution’s evidence.  The attorneys at Campolo Middleton and McCormick, LLP remain ready to answer these calls.