In 2004, Meridian police officer Joseph Moulds observed a person, later identified as Fredrick Moore, driving an automobile with only one working tail light on the city streets of Meridian. Acting on his belief that this vehicle was in violation of state law by having only one operative tail light, Moulds initiated a traffic stop. (Moulds was mistaken. Mississippi Code Annotated Section 63-7-13 (Rev. 2004) requires that a vehicle have only one working tail light. Thus, Moore’s vehicle was in compliance with the statute.)
Prior to approaching the vehicle on foot, Moulds observed the driver making movements as if he were placing something on the floorboard or under the driver’s seat. Moulds approached the vehicle and detected the odor of marihuana. The license check revealed that the license number was nonexistent and that the driver had given Moulds a false name.
Moulds then placed Moore in handcuffs and put him in the police car while he searched the vehicle. The search of the vehicle produced a blunt marihuana cigarette which was still hot, as well as a Hi-Point .380-caliber hand gun located under the driver’s seat. Moore initially stated that he knew nothing about the hand gun being in the car, but later admitted that the hand gun belonged to his brother.
Moore pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm under an Alford plea and was sentenced to two years, with all but one day suspended. In post conviction relief, MCOA found the stop was illegal and thus his counsel may have provided ineffective assistance by allowing him to plead guilty. MSC reversed MCOA and found the officer’s actions in stopping Moore were reasonable in this case.
In Escalante, the federal 5th circuit stated that a traffic stop, even if pretextual, does not violate the Fourth Amendment if the officer making the stop has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred. This is an objective test based on the facts known to the officer at the time of the stop, not on the motivations of the officer in making the stop. On the other hand, if it is clear that what the police observed did not constitute a violation of the cited traffic law, there is no objective basis for the stop, and the stop is illegal.
The issue in Escalante was whether the stop was pre textual, which was not an issue in this case. If Moulds had probable cause to believe that Moore was violating a law, the stop was constitutional, regardless of Moulds’s alleged motivation for stopping the vehicle. We think Harrison is more on point in this matter.
In Harrison, two Lincoln County deputy sheriffs stopped Harrison at 1:30 a.m. for traveling 67 to 70 MPH in a construction zone which was marked with a 60 MPH speed limit sign. No workers were in the construction zone at that early hour. After Harrison agreed to a search of his vehicle, they discovered 117 pounds of marihuana in a duffle bag.
This court found that Harrison had not violated the construction zone speed limit (since construction workers were not present) or the general 70 MPH speed limit, and that it thus necessarily followed that evidence derived from the stop would be subject to suppression if the inquiry stopped there. However, this court concluded that the deputies had sufficient probable cause to stop Harrison, even though their stopping Harrison was a mistake of law.
In Harrison, the officers testified that they based their stop on the belief that Harrison was in violation of the traffic laws that made it illegal to exceed the posted speed limit, which was sixty (60) miles per hour. In essence, the stop was based on a mistake of law. In addressing the validity of probable cause in light of a mistake of law, several courts have determined that if the probable cause is based on good faith and a reasonable basis then it is valid. For example:
In U.S. v. Wallace, 213 F.3d 1216 (9th Cir. 2000), they found probable cause existed because of reasonable belief that suspect committed or was committing crime even though officer was mistaken that all front window tint was illegal;
In U.S. v. Sanders, 196 F.3d 910 (8th Cir. 1999), officer objectively had reasonable basis for probable cause even though, vehicle was not technically in violation of the statute (number of working tail lights);
In DeChene v. Smallwood, 226 Va. 475 (Va. 1984), arrest resulting from mistake of law was judged by the same test as one stemming from mistake of fact; whether the arresting officer acted in good faith and with probable cause.
Based on the totality of the circumstances and the valid reasonable belief that Harrison was violating the traffic laws, the two deputies had probable cause to stop Harrison, even though it was based on a mistake of law. Accordingly, we find that the deputies had sufficient probable cause to stop Harrison, even in light of the mistake of law.
We conclude that Moulds had an objective, reasonable basis for believing that Moore was in violation of the law for driving a vehicle on a public street with only one operative tail light. In other words, Moulds had sufficient probable cause to pull Moore over, although, as it turns out, Moulds based his belief of a traffic violation on a mistake of law.
It necessarily follows from the record before us that the search of Moore’s vehicle which produced, inter alia, the Hi-Point .380 caliber handgun, was lawful.
Thus, Moore’s trial counsel cannot be found to have rendered ineffective assistance by failing to file a motion to suppress this evidence prior to Moore’s offer of his Alford plea.
When you read this for the first time, it it easy to get confused about the analysis. To help you, let me bold an important word. When Escalante says “if it is clear that what the police observed did not constitute a violation of the cited traffic law, there is no objective basis for the stop, and the stop is illegal” you need to think about scenarios where it is clear that the officer was not justified in making a traffic stop. Trejo is a good example.
In this case, it was not clear that Mould’s actions were improper. Moulds made a mistake about the law. Finally, this is one more reason to cite every basis for the stop.