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LeShawn Stanbridge appeals his conviction for possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). The drugs had been found in Stanbridge’s car after police in Quincy, Illinois, detained him on the ground that he committed a traffic offense by not signaling continuously for 100 feet before pulling alongside the curb to park. That understanding of Illinois law was wrong, but the district court decided that the mistake was reasonable and denied Stanbridge’s motion to suppress the drugs. We hold that the mistake of law was not reasonable, and thus Stanbridge’s motion to suppress should have been granted.

Stanbridge was walking to his car carrying a duffel bag when two Quincy police officers passed by on patrol. After driving just a short distance, Stanbridge activated his right turn signal, pulled to the side of the street, and parked parallel with the curb. Officer Bangert stopped behind Stanbridge and activated his blue flashers, effectively seizing Stanbridge. Bangert did so because Stanbridge had not activated his turn signal 100 feet before pulling to the curb.

A drug-sniffing dog led to the discovery of methamphetamine, marijuana, and pills inside Stanbridge’s duffel bag. He moved to suppress the evidence derived from the stop, asserting that he was seized unlawfully because he had not committed a traffic violation.

At a hearing on Stanbridge’s motion to suppress. Bangert’s only justification for detaining Stanbridge was that he had “started to signal after [his car] already started its turn pulling to the curb.” The dashcam video does confirm that Stanbridge activated his turn signal just before he pulled to the right to park, not contemporaneously with the rightward movement.

The district court denied Stanbridge’s motion. The court opined that the Illinois Vehicle Code is ambiguous concerning whether a driver must signal for 100 feet before pulling to a curb. And, Bangert’s belief “was reasonable, even if it were mistaken,” and thus the perceived ambiguity “must be resolved in the Government’s favor.

Stanbridge argues that Illinois law does not require a driver to signal continuously for 100 feet before parking parallel to a curb, and that Officer Bangert’s mistake of law on this point was unreasonable and thus cannot be a basis for upholding the seizure.

Section 11-804 of the Illinois Vehicle Code provides: When signal required.
(b) A signal of intention to turn right or left when required must be given continuously during not less than the last 100 feet traveled by the vehicle before turning within a business or residence district.
(d) The electric turn signal device required in Section 12-208 of this Act must be used to indicate an intention to turn, change lanes or start from a parallel parked position.
625 ILCS 5/11-804.

Stanbridge disagrees with the district court’s belief that this statute is ambiguous concerning the 100-foot minimum signaling distance. The statute requires only that a signal “must be used” when changing lanes, not that a signal be used for 100 feet or any other specified distance. The government argues that a “driver cannot `indicate an intention’ to change lanes while he is already changing lanes.”
We agree with Stanbridge that § 11-804 is not ambiguous, and does not require a driver to signal for 100 feet before pulling alongside a curb to park. The minimum signaling distances required by subsection (b) apply only when a driver intends “to turn right or left.” And no other subsection includes an explicit command to signal before moving toward a curb to park.

§ 11-804 is the requirement in subsection (d) that a signal be used to indicate an intention to “change lanes.” “Lane” is not defined. But even if moving toward the curb of unstriped pavement to park constitutes “changing lanes,” § 11-804(d) requires only that a turn signal “be used.” And Stanbridge did use his signal. The dashcam video refutes the government’s assertion that Stanbridge activated his turn signal only after pulling toward the curb; the light was on before Stanbridge moved to the right.

A police officer’s objectively reasonable mistake of law can provide reasonable suspicion for a seizure. See Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S. Ct. 530, 534-35, 539-40 (2014) (concluding that police officer’s mistaken belief that ambiguous vehicle code required more than one functional brake light was objectively reasonable).

Officer’s Bangert’s misunderstanding of § 11-804 was not objectively reasonable. The statute isn’t ambiguous, and Hein does not support the proposition that a police officer acts in an objectively reasonable manner by misinterpreting an unambiguous statute.  The 100-foot requirement in § 11-804(b) unambiguously applies to turns, and nothing more. Bangert simply was wrong about what the provision required, yet “an officer can gain no Fourth Amendment advantage through a sloppy study of the laws he is duty-bound to enforce.” Hein,135 S. Ct. at 539-40.

Stanbridge fully complied with § 11-804. Officer Bangert’s contrary belief was not objectively reasonable, and thus the officer’s mistake of law cannot justify Stanbridge’s seizure. Accordingly, the denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress must be overturned. The judgment of conviction is VACATED.

By:  Chicago Federal Defense Attorney Michael J. Petro