CHICAGO (CN) - The Seventh Circuit on Tuesday reversed and remanded an Illinois man's drug conviction, finding police had no reason to stop his car and search him because he failed to signal for 100 feet before parking.
A federal judge found the arresting officers did not understand the law, but their mistake was reasonable, so she refused LeShawn Stanbridge's motion to suppress evidence. The Seventh Circuit disagreed, saying the officers' mistake was not reasonable, and the evidence should have been suppressed.
Stanbridge was carrying a duffel bag to his car in Quincy, Ill. when two police officers passed by and began shadowing him with the hope of catching him in a traffic violation" because he "looked surprised" when he saw them, Judge William Bauer wrote for the three-judge panel.
After driving a bit, Stanbridge, 28, turned on his right blinker and parallel parked his car.
Officer Paul Hodges claimed that Stanbridge had made a left turn without signaling, though Officer Steve Bangert, who was driving, said he did not notice that.
Bangert turned on his blue flashers and stopped behind Stanbridge, claiming he had failed to signal continuously for 100 feet before pulling to the curb.
A license check showed Stanbridge had some prior violations, including a conviction for marijuana possession 11 years before. Bangert requested a drug-sniffing dog.
The dog found methamphetamine, marijuana and pills in Stanbridge's bag. He was charged with conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and possession with intent to distribute.
He moved to suppress the evidence, claiming it was an unlawful seizure because he had not committed a traffic violation.
U.S. District Judge Sue Myerscough in Springfield, Ill. denied the motion, though the patrol car dashcam video showed Stanbridge did signal before parking - not at the same time, as the officers had said.
Myers ruled that Bangert's belief that Stanbridge signaled for less than 100 feet before parking "was reasonable, even if it were mistaken," and the disputed left turn was irrelevant.
Stanbridge then entered a conditional guilty plea to possession and was sentenced to a year in prison, then appealed.
The Seventh Circuit vacated the conviction and remanded.
"The government has failed to recognize, let alone challenge, the district court's rejection of its position that the stop was alternatively justified by the unsignaled left turn," Judge Bauer wrote for the Seventh Circuit. (Emphasis in ruling])
Illinois Vehicle Code Sec. 11-804 is "not ambiguous, and does not require a driver to signal for 100 feet before pulling alongside a curb to park," Bauer said.
The state's minimum turn-signaling distances "apply only when a driver intends 'to turn right or left' (emphasis added)," the judge added (parentheses in original). "And no other subsection includes an explicit command to signal before moving toward a curb to park."
Bauer added: "The government has not given us reason to think that the Legislature intended to require drivers seeking parking in congested urban areas to continuously signal for 100 feet before determining that a possible parking space is not only large enough, but also free of fire hydrants, yellow curbs, and other parking restrictions."
He found that Bangert's misunderstanding of the law "was not objectively reasonable."
"Anyway, who else was on the road to warn?" Bauer asked. "Once again the dashcam video upends the government's contention; as is plain from that video, the police officers' distant patrol car was the only other vehicle in sight of Stanbridge, and he already was moving slowly when he decided to pull over and park."
Judges Posner and Wood joined in the ruling.
The parties did not return emailed requests for comment Wednesday.
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