Officer’s Mistaken Understanding of Traffic Code Doesn’t Merit Suppression

by | March 15, 2024

United States v. Marsh, 2024 WL 1069744 (6th Cir. 2024)

Herbert Marsh and two companions robbed a pawn shop at gunpoint, stealing guns and cash. Marsh brandished a handgun and forced an employee to open the safe. The following day, two officers spotted Marsh’s gray BMW sedan and thought it met the description from a “be on the lookout” bulletin. The officers followed the car, watching for a traffic violation. The BMW stopped for a red light at an intersection. When the light turned green, the BMW turned left into the outside right lane of four-lane cross street. The officers mistakenly believed state law required drivers turning left to enter the lane closest to the center of the road. Though many state and local traffic codes mandate a left turn be made into the leftmost lane, that was not the case in this stop.

The officers stopped the BMW. While speaking with the driver the officers determined they had probable cause to search the vehicle for drugs. The search turned up marijuana and five firearms. Four of the guns had been stolen in the previous day’s pawn shop robbery. The officers arrested Marsh and his two fellow robbers.

Marsh asked the trial court to suppress the evidence found in his car. He argued the left-hand turn did not violate state law and thus the officers lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop. Marsh cited a state attorney general opinion that state law “does not specify the lane into which a left-turning driver is required to enter.” Nonetheless, the trial court denied the suppression motion. A jury convicted Marsh of the majority of the charges and the judge sentenced him to 17 ½ years in federal prison. Marsh appealed the denial of the suppression motion and his conviction.

If an officer is mistaken about the reason for the stop, the officer is generally entitled to the benefit of the doubt in analyzing subsequent actions.

If an officer is mistaken about the reason for the stop, the officer is generally entitled to the benefit of the doubt in analyzing subsequent actions (Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54 (2014)): “Reasonable men make mistakes of law, too, and such mistakes are no less compatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion arises from the combination of an officer’s understanding of the facts and his understanding of the relevant law. The officer may be reasonably mistaken on either ground.” The Court had previously upheld stops and detentions based on mistakes of fact. However, most state and federal courts had refused to apply the principle to mistakes of law. The Court’s decision in Heien v. North Carolina plainly provides an officer is entitled to the benefit of the doubt in the case of a reasonable mistake of law.

The court held the officers’ interpretation was objectively reasonable and did not violate the Fourth Amendment, affirming the trial court’s denial of Marsh’s motion to suppress. Marsh also challenged the calculation leading to his lengthy sentence, but the appellate court affirmed the sentencing judgment of the district court.

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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