Defendant Argues “Mistake of Law” in New Jersey DWI Appeal

In a New Jersey DWI case, a defendant may claim that a police officer made a mistake that affects the outcome of the case. A “mistake of law” might involve conduct that an officer incorrectly believes is against the law, while a “mistake of fact” could be an error or misconception that leads an officer to wrongly think a driver has committed an offense. Mistakes of law are more likely to help a defendant fighting a DWI charge, although the legal landscape has recently changed considerably. A New Jersey Appellate Division decision, State v. Fath, involved an alleged mistake of law by the arresting officer that required dismissal of the DWI charge. The court found that it was actually a mistake of fact and that the officer’s decision to stop the defendant’s vehicle was justified on other grounds.

The arresting officer testified that he was stopped at a red light, facing the defendant’s vehicle, when he saw her make a right turn on red in violation of a posted “no right turn on red” sign. He followed her and then claimed that he witnessed her “carelessly cross oncoming traffic in order to make a left-hand turn.” He pulled her over, and she was ultimately charged with DWI, careless driving, and “failing to observe a traffic signal prohibiting a turn on red.”

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the traffic stop. New Jersey traffic law requires drivers to obey all traffic control devices “placed in accordance with the provisions of this chapter.” Right turns on red are allowed “unless an official sign…prohibits the same.” The defendant produced a certification from the New Jersey Department of Transportation stating that it had failed to find any official approval of a “no right turn” sign at that intersection. In other words, she argued that the sign was not “an official sign” under New Jersey law, and it was therefore a mistake of law for the officer to stop her for making a right turn.

This argument, according to the court, was based on a 2005 Appellate Division case, State v. Puzio, which held that a vehicle stop is unlawful if it is based on an officer’s mistaken belief that certain conduct violates a law. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled last year in Heien v. North Carolina that an officer’s mistake of law did not render a traffic stop unlawful because the officer’s mistaken belief was reasonable. This decision could overturn Puzio.

The municipal court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress, and the Law and Appellate Divisions affirmed. The Appellate Division held that the officer did not make a mistake of law with regard to an illegal right turn on red. Instead, the court held, the officer made “an objectively reasonable mistake of fact” by assuming that the “no right turn on red” sign had the full force of law. It also held that the defendant’s allegedly careless left turn justified the traffic stop, regardless of the legal status of the “no right turn” sign.

Evan M. Levow fights for the rights of people who are facing DWI charges in New Jersey courts. At Levow & Associates, we have dedicated 100% of our law practice to DWI defense. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with an experienced and skilled defense advocate, contact us online or at (877) 975-3399. We are available 24/7 to assist you.

More Blog Posts:

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Limits Police Authority During Traffic Stops, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 9, 2015

Motorist Settles Lawsuit Against City Involving Arrest for Alleged DWI, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, March 6, 2015

Supreme Court Rules that Traffic Stop Was Lawful, Despite Police Officer’s Misunderstanding of Traffic Law, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, January 20, 2015

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