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Court Grants Defendant’s Motion to Suppress Based on Officer’s Misunderstanding of Virginia Traffic Laws

Recently, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Virginia drug crime case discussing whether the arresting officer legally stopped the defendant’s vehicle. Ultimately, the court concluded that the stop was illegal, and ordered the suppression of all evidence recovered as a result. The case illustrates when an officer’s mistake can result in the suppression of evidence.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was driving in the right-hand lane on Route 360. As he approached an intersection, the defendant changed lanes into the center lane. In doing so, he crossed a single, solid-white line indicating the beginning of the intersection. There were two other cars on the road at the time, but neither was directly behind the defendant.

A police officer was traveling about 100 feet behind the defendant, when he observed the defendant’s lane change. Believing that the Virginia law prohibits a driver from crossing a solid-white line when changing lanes, the officer pulled the defendant over. The officer recovered drugs as a result of the traffic stop.

In a pre-trial motion to suppress, the defendant argued that the traffic stop was illegal. Specifically, the defendant noted that nothing in the Virginia Code makes it illegal to cross a single solid white line when changing lanes. The trial court acknowledged that the defendant’s position was correct, but determined that the officer’s mistake was reasonable. Thus, the court denied the defendant’s motion, and the defendant appealed.

The Appellate Court’s Decision

On appeal, the defendant renewed his argument regarding the propriety of the traffic stop. The court began its analysis by explaining that an officer must have reasonable suspicion that a defendant committed a traffic violation before initiating a traffic stop. However, the court also noted that “a seizure based on an officer’s reasonable mistake of law does not violate the Fourth Amendment.” Thus, not every mistake will result in the suppression of evidence; the officer’s mistake must be an unreasonable one before a court grants a defendant’s motion to suppress.

Here, the court held that the police officer’s misunderstanding of the traffic code was not a reasonable mistake. The court explained that Virginia Code section 46.2-804 (regarding lane changes) is unambiguous, and does not preclude crossing a single, solid-white line. The court went on to state that “ignorance of the law is not a reasonable mistake of law.”

Thus, the appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision, resulting in any evidence obtained during the traffic stop being suppressed.

Have You Been Arrested after a Virginia Traffic Stop?

If you have recently been arrested after a questionable traffic stop, contact the criminal defense lawyers at Robinson Law, PLLC. We have decades of experience helping our clients fight for their freedom against even the most serious allegations. Whether you are facing a Virginia drug crime, weapons offense, or allegations of domestic violence, we can help. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation to discuss your case with one of our experienced criminal defense lawyers, call 703-542-4008 today.

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