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Mistake of Law

Ignorantia juris non excusat” means ignorance of the law is no excuse to escape liability. John or Jane Doe may not use this excuse to get out of a crime, but police officers can get away with it certain situations. Recently, the Minnesota Court of Appeals filed a decision inclined towards this theory in McGuire v. Comm’r of Pub. Safety. The opinion affirmed an Olmstead County ruling that an officer who mistakenly believes someone is in violation of a law can still have reasonable suspicion to stop them based on this mistaken belief.

Factually, a cop saw Mr. McGuire’s vehicle peel away from a stop sign, which caused dark exhaust to fly up. As the officer began to follow Mr. McGuire’s vehicle, he noticed that Mr. McGuire was driving without a back-license plate. The cop believed that vehicles driven in Minnesota need either a rear license plate or temporary permit displayed in the rear window of the vehicle. Based on this belief, the officer stopped Mr. McGuire’s vehicle, which later resulted in a Fourth Degree DWI change and driver’s license revocation. Mr. McGuire turned out to be a Missouri resident who was temporarily in Rochester for work. Importantly, Missouri law only requires the type of truck that Mr. McGuire was driving to have a front license plate. On appeal, Mr. McGuire contended that the officer’s mistake of law was not lawful.

Minnesota law requires“one plate must be displayed on the front and one on the rear of the vehicle.” Minn. Stat. § 169.79, subd. 6 (2016). However, the legislature has authorized the commissioner of public safety to enter into agreements with other states. This authorization states, in part, that “equitable treatment of the owners of vehicles registered in this and the other state” shall occur. Thus, Mr. McGuire’s vehicle was properly in line with Missouri license plate requirements, which therefore means he was also in accordance with Minnesota laws due to the agreement authorized by the legislature. As the court of appeals noted: “[A] vehicle properly registered or licensed in Missouri will be treated as properly licensed in Minnesota even if the Missouri licensing requirements are different . . .” (emphasis added).This note falls in line with Minnesota Supreme Court precedent in State v. George where the court noted that “an officer’s mistaken belief as to the law cannot provide an objective basis for an investigatory stop.”

Based on this analysis, it would appear quite clear that Mr. McGuire’s stop was not valid. However, the Court of Appeals determined Mr. McGuire’s situation was more analogous with State v. Timberlake. In Timberlake, the court held that the officer had a reasonable basis to believe Timberlake was involved in criminal activity, even if they did not know whether he had a permit to carry a gun. Here, the court believes this is the most parallel case the officer’s mistaken belief that Mr. McGuire was violating a license plate requirement, because the officer would have no way of knowing that Mr. McGuire was legally following Missouri guidelines by only having a front license plate on his truck.

While this case mayhave involved a legitimate mistaken belief, it can give judicial officers support to uphold bad stops where otherwise none exists.

Alec Rolain is a law clerk at Ambrose Law Firm, PLLC. He just finished his second year at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul. Prior to law school, Alec attended St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona where he played baseball and made the MIAC all-sportsmanship team. Criminal Defense Attorney Woodbury MN; DWI Lawyer Woodbury; and Criminal Appeals Lawyer Minnesota.

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