Good faith and reasonable mistake of law still provides probable cause for stop


At 1:30 a.m. on May 31, 1998, Lincoln County Sheriff Deputies Chris Picou and Anthony Foster were monitoring traffic on Interstate 55. The deputies parked in a construction area watching north bound traffic and drove a Sheriffs Department K-9 unit vehicle containing a drug sniffing dog. The construction zone was marked with a 60 mile per hour speed limit, and there were orange barrels closing off one lane of traffic between mile markers 44 and 46.

The deputies stopped Billy Daniel Harrison for driving 67-70 MPH in a 60 MPH construction zone after visually observing that Harrison appeared to be exceeding the 60 mile per hour speed limit. No workers were present in the area where Harrison was stopped.

Picou discovered that Harrison rented the vehicle he was driving in Texas and was returning to Alabama after flying to Houston, Texas. After completing a driver’s license check, Foster discovered that, although Harrison’s license was valid, he had prior arrests for narcotic trafficking. Picou then asked for consent to search the car and Harrison agreed.

Picou opened the rear door to the car and smelled the odor of raw marijuana emanating from the vehicle. Deputy Foster obtained Harrison’s car keys to open the trunk and found 117 pounds of marijuana in a duffle bag.

Harrison was convicted for possession with intent to distribute more than one kilogram of marijuana and sentenced to 30 years. On appeal, he argued that since construction workers were not present, the 60 MPH sign did not apply. Thus, there was no probable cause for the stop. MSC affirmed.


A. Harrison wasn’t in violation of the law

Miss.Code Ann. § 63-3-516(1) as it existed at all times pertinent to this action states in pertinent part:

(1) It shall be unlawful for any person to operate a motor vehicle within a highway work zone at a speed in excess of the maximum speed limit specifically established for the zone whenever workers are present and whenever the zone is indicated by appropriately placed signs displaying the reduced maximum speed limit.

The statute, § 63-3-516, requires two criteria in order to be applicable: (1) workers must be present and (2) signs indicating the reduced maximum speed limit must be appropriately displayed. Here, even though the signs were displayed, the evidence is uncontroverted that no workers were present in the highway construction zone at 1:30 a.m. when Harrison was stopped for speeding.

We must apply this statute as it is written. Harrison neither violated the construction zone speeding statute, nor the general 70 MPH posted speed limit, because he was going between 67-70 mph. It follows that evidence derived from the stop would be subject to suppression if the inquiry stopped there. It does not stop there, however, because the question of probable cause does not turn upon an ultimate finding of guilt of the offense for which one was stopped.

B. Mistake of law by officers

In Whren v. U.S., 517 U.S. 806 (1996), the United States Supreme Court stated that the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.

This court in Conway v. State, 397 So.2d 1095 (Miss. 1980) defined probable cause as a practical, nontechnical concept, based upon the conventional consideration of every day life on which reasonable prudent men, not legal technicians act. It arises when the facts and circumstances with an officer’s knowledge, or of which he has reasonably trustworthy information, are sufficient in themselves to justify a man of average caution in the belief that a crime has been committed and that a particular individual committed it.

Here, 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:

United States v. Wallace, 213 F.3d 1216 (9th Cir.2000)(finding 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);

United States 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);

DeChene v. Smallwood, 226 Va. 475, 311 S.E.2d 749 (1984)(holding arrest resulting from mistake of law should be judged by the same test as one stemming from mistake of fact; whether the arresting officer acted “in good faith and with probable cause”).

In Sanders, Sanders was a passenger in a pick-up truck that was towing a trailer. An officer stopped the vehicle because one of the two taillights was missing a red lens and was emitting white light from the exposed bulb, in violation of South Dakota law. In fact, it was not in violation of the statute because the statute was only applicable to trailers assembled after July 1, 1973, and this trailer was manufactured prior to 1973.

The Sanders court began its inquiry with whether or not the officer had an “objectively reasonable basis for believing that the driver has breached a traffic law.” The court then reasoned that even if the trailer was not technically in violation of the statute, the officer could have reasonably believed that the trailer was in violation of the statute. The court concluded that even if the officer was wrong, it could not say that the officer’s belief was unreasonable.

We find this analysis persuasive. In our case, the two deputies paced Harrison as driving between 67-70 miles per hour, which was in violation of the posted sixty (60) mile per hour speed limit. Regardless of whether there were construction workers present in the area the deputies had an objective reasonable basis for believing that Harrison violated the traffic laws of Mississippi by exceeding the speed limit.

Based on the totality of 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.