The police are charged with enforcing the law. But what if they misunderstand that law? What if the officer stops you based on his or her mistaken belief about what the law really means? Will a judge allow the evidence resulting from that mistake to stand?

Before he or she can stop you, an officer must have a reasonable, articulable suspicion of wrongdoing. Such a stop or search may be valid even if the officer misunderstood the law as long as that misunderstanding is reasonable. Laws can be complicated and ambiguous. A court will generally not penalize the officer over a complex law. However, if the officer’s mistake is unreasonable, you may be able to get the evidence against you dismissed.

In People v Flores, an officer stopped a defendant because he believed the defendant’s license plate frame violated Illinois’s plate-display law. In a subsequent search, the officer found heroin in defendant’s car. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that Mr. Flores’s car dealer-type license plate frame did not violate the law. Nor was it reasonable for the officer to think that it did. As a result, the court overturned the defendant’s conviction.

In contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld a traffic stop where the officer mistakenly understood a North Carolina law to require two working brake lights. However, in that case, the law was subject to varying interpretations. Furthermore, the Court said its decision in favor of the officer only applied to reasonable mistakes of law. See Helen v North Carolina.

If you have questions about this or another related Illinois criminal or traffic matter, please contact Matt Keenan at 847-568-0160 or email

(Besides Skokie, Matt Keenan also serves the communities of Arlington Heights, Chicago, Deerfield, Des Plaines, Evanston, Glenview, Morton Grove, Mount Prospect, Niles, Northbrook, Park Ridge, Rolling Meadows, Wilmette and Winnetka.)

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