“Taking into account Texas’ unique judicial-branch and peace-officer jurisdiction, mistake of law should apply whenever an officer conducts a search or seizure under an ambiguous law that a majority of this Court has not yet construed, notwithstanding negative precedent in the controlling appellate-court jurisdiction.”
Daniel moved to suppress evidence that he drove while intoxicated, alleging he was unlawfully stopped for failing to maintain a single lane in violation of Tex. Transp. Code § 545.060(a). After the trial court denied the motion, he pleaded guilty to DWI.
A majority of the Austin Court of Appeals reversed. It determined that Leming v. State, 493 S.W.3d 552 (Tex. Crim. App. 2016), a plurality opinion construing Section 545.060(a) to require only the failure to remain, as nearly as practicable, entirely in a lane, is not binding. Instead, it relied on its prior panel decision in Hernandez v. State, 983 S.W.2d 867 (Tex. App.—Austin 1998, pet. ref’d), and held that the stop was unlawful because Appellant’s failure to maintain a lane was not also unsafe.
The State argued that the stop was lawful under Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 57 (2014), which held when an officer’s reasonable suspicion or probable cause was based on an objectively reasonable mistake of law, the officer’s conduct is deemed lawful under the Fourth Amendment. The majority rejected the argument because of the conflict between Leming and Hernandez. It reasoned that, in the absence of binding precedent from the Court of Criminal Appeals overruling Hernandez, an officer acting in the Austin court’s appellate jurisdiction could not be reasonably mistaken. Former Justice Goodwin dissented. She stated that, because Hernandez had not been revisited since Leming, the officer’s mistake at the time of the stop was objectively reasonable.
The State first points out that the mistake-of-law question here is complicated. Unlike Heien, where there was no precedent on the statute at issue, Section 545.060(a), at the time of the stop in 2017, had been construed by several appellate courts, including the governing jurisdiction, and the CCA in a plurality opinion. The question here is: should mistake of law apply when the governing jurisdiction has construed Section 545.060(a) always to require unsafe movement, see Hernandez, a later plurality of the CCA disagreed, see Leming, and several other appellate-court jurisdictions post-Leming have agreed and disagreed with Leming? The State contends that U.S. Supreme Court precedent does not resolve the issue, but an unpublished Fifth Circuit case addressing this exact situation is persuasive authority. In U.S. v. Valenzuela-Godinez, the court held that, because Texas courts are divided, the officer’s actions were objectively reasonable. 816 F. App’x 914 (5th Cir. 2020) (not designated for publication).
Additionally, the State argues that mistake of law should apply when the CCA has not yet settled the underlying legal question, regardless of lower-court agreement or disagreement. If the constitutionality of searches and seizures is to be decided on a scale with Texas, then both its one-of-a-kind judicial branch and its peace-officer jurisdiction must be primary considerations. The State asserts that this is the only rational resolution because both types of jurisdictions are a mare’s nest with resulting inherent inconsistency. For example, the State notes that the application of the court of appeals’ test would be unknowable when appellate courts have overlapping jurisdiction or when officers act under statewide authority.