Is it against the law in Georgia to cut across a parking lot to avoid a traffic light? That's the question that the Georgia Court of Appeals recently grappled with in the case of Harris v. State. Alfred Harris Jr. was sitting at a stop light waiting for it to turn green. Behind him was a Clayton County police officer. After a few minutes of waiting at the red light, Harris decided to cut through the gas station parking lot located to his right rather than wait for the light to change.
The Clayton County officer followed Harris and pulled him over because he believed this action was not legal. Upon stopping Harris, the officer also suspected that Harris was under the influence and Harris was ultimately charged with both a DUI and a traffic violation pursuant to OCGA § 40-6-20.
The officer contended that he thought that the code section Harris had violated said “no vehicle shall disengage to a traffic control device by running the traffic control device.” He believed that when Harris cut through the parking lot he “disengaged” the stoplight and violated the law. In addition, the officer stated that he had been trained that Harris' actions were not permitted and that he had “stopped other drivers in the past for this same conduct.” While the officer didn't identify the specific code section he believed Harris has been in violation of, according to the Court of Appeals, “it is undisputed that the officer believed Harris had violated OCGA § 40-6-20."
However, the aforementioned code section does not state what the officer believed. In fact, it was later determined that the officer had made a mistake and Harris' cutting through the parking lot was not a traffic violation after all. Despite this, Harris' motion to suppress was denied because the trial court “found that the traffic stop was legal because the officer's mistake of law was ‘reasonable but honest.'” Harris was subsequently convicted of the DUI offense and appealed.
On appeal, Harris argued “that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress because taking a detour through the gas station parking lot to avoid the traffic signal did not violate OCGA § 40-6-20 and the officer's incorrect understanding of the law did not give rise to the reasonable articulable suspicion required for a traffic stop.” While the State conceded the traffic violation issue, it nonetheless argued that "because the officer had a good faith basis to believe that Harris had violated the law, the traffic stop was based on reasonable articulable suspicion and was valid.”
The Court of Appeals did not find the State's argument compelling. It stated that the officer's error needed to be objectively reasonable in order to make the stop permissible despite a mistake of law. In this case, the court did not find the officer's error to meet this requirement. The court stated Harris hadn't disregarded or disobeyed the “the traffic light's instruction to stop at the intersection” and that “[t]he officer's understanding that ‘disengaging' the traffic light is a violation of OCGA § 40-6-20 is not supported by the plain language of the statute, and nothing in the plain language of the statute indicated that Harris committed a violation by ‘running' the light, when he took a detour around the intersection.”
As such, the court held that the “the officer's mistake of law here was not objectively reasonable and there was no reasonable articulable suspicion to support the traffic stop.” In addition, the court stated that Georgia does not have a good faith exception to the exclusionary rule and the “evidence obtained as a result of the stop should have been suppressed.” The court then reversed the trial court's ruling on the motion to suppress and reversed Harris' conviction as well.
If you or a loved one has been arrested for driving under the influence, you want a knowledgeable and experienced Georgia DUI attorney on your side. Contact our office today for a free case evaluation today.