American Bar Association
Media Alerts
Media Alerts - U.S. v. Cunningham - Tenth Circuit
Decrease font size
Increase font size
February 11, 2016
  U.S. v. Cunningham - Tenth Circuit
Case Name: U.S. v. Cunningham (non-precedential)

Headline: Tenth Circuit Applies New Supreme Court Case Holding That Officer's Mistake of Law Excuses Improper Stop

Area of Law: Criminal Procedure, Fourth Amendment

Issue Presented: Whether the officer made an objectively reasonable mistake of law that would justify an otherwise invalid traffic stop.

Brief Summary:

An officer stopped a vehicle because of the driver's failure to signal prior to turning onto a public street. The front seat passenger, Defendant, was indicted for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Defendant filed a motion to suppress on the grounds that the driver's conduct was not prohibited by the Colorado statute. The district court denied the motion to suppress, holding that the stop was justified based on a traffic violation.

Defendant appealed. Following the district court's judgment, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Helen v. North Carolina, 135 S.Ct. 530, 539 (2014) that an officer's mistake of law can justify a traffic stop as long as the mistake is objectively reasonable. Relying on Helen, the Tenth Circuit affirmed, holding that the officer's mistake was objectively reasonable because the statute was ambiguous.

Extended Summary:

An officer stopped a vehicle as it was exiting a motel parking lot because the driver failed to signal her intention to turn onto a public street, contra Colo. Rev. Stat. ยง 42-4-903(1). The front seat passenger, Defendant, was indicted for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the statute did not prohibit the driver's conduct, the traffic stop was thereby invalid, and as a result the firearm and statements were obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Defendant argued that the officer's mistake of law, even if reasonable, invalidated the stop.

The district court found that the driver committed a traffic violation under Colorado law and that the stop was not based on a mistake of law. The court denied Defendant's motion to suppress. Defendant appealed.

The issue before the Tenth Circuit was whether the traffic stop and seizure were permissible under the Fourth Amendment. After the district court's ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Helen v. North Carolina, 135 S.Ct. 530, 539 (2014). There, the Supreme Court held that an officer's mistake of law does not invalidate a traffic stop so long as the mistake is objectively reasonable.

The Tenth Circuit held that the officer's interpretation of Colorado law as requiring a turn signal was objectively reasonable and so then was the stop. First, the statute is genuinely ambiguous and the highest court in Colorado has not interpreted it. Second, like Sigrist v. Love, 510 P.2d 456, 457 (Colo.App.1973), the Tenth Circuit can apply a state traffic law to a driver entering a public street. Third, the divide among Colorado district courts in interpreting this law provided further evidence of the ambiguity in the statute.

The Tenth Circuit also interpreted the statute to require the driver to signal her intent to turn. Though the statute only expressly requires a signal when entering a private road, but not exiting, a residual clause requires a signal when turning from a direct course, roadway or not. Additionally, even though the statute ordinarily does not apply to a private road or driveway, the conduct here did not occur exclusively on a private road. It involved the use of a street governed by state law. Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of Defendant's motion to suppress.

To read the full opinion, please visit: https://www.ca10.uscourts.gov/opinions/15/15-1042.pdfhttps://www.ca10.uscourts.gov/opinions/15/15-1042.pdf

Panel: Gorsuch, O'Brien, and Bacharach

Date of Issued Opinion: November 24, 2015

Docket Number: No. 15-1042

Decided: The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of Defendant's motion to suppress.

Case Alert Author: Veronica C. Gonzales

Counsel:

Robert Mark Russel, David A. Tonini, Office of the United States Attorney, Denver, CO, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Antony Mark Noble, Noble Law Firm, LLC, Lakewood, CO, for Defendant - Appellant.

Author of Opinion: Hon. Terrence L. O'Brien

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Dawinder S. Sidhu

    Posted By: Veronica Gonzales @ 02/11/2016 11:50 PM     10th Circuit  

FuseTalk Enterprise Edition - © 1999-2018 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Discussion Board Usage Agreement

Back to Top