In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with law enforcement in a case arising from a police officer’s misunderstanding of the law. In their decision in the case of Heien v. North Carolina, the Supreme court held that a person’s 4th amendment right against an unreasonable search are not necessarily violated even if the arresting office is unaware of the law.
In 2009 Nicholas Heien was driving with a broken taillight in North Carolina when he was pulled over by police for a single broken brake light. At the time of the incident and arrest the police had mistakenly believed that state law required vehicles to have two working taillights — which was not in fact the case.
Upon receiving consent to search the vehicle, police found cocaine and charged Heien with drug trafficking. At trial, Heien’s lawyer tried to suppress the evidence arising out of the search by arguing that the officer never had the reasonable suspicion needed to the defendant over, because having one broken taillight was not illegal.
The trial court ruled against him, but later on the appellate court found that Heien’s 4th Amendment rights were violated and reversed the decision. Later, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the decision again, holding that an officer’s understanding of the state’s taillight requirements could form the basis for reasonable suspicion because that understanding, while incorrect, was reasonable
Which led to the case being heard in the US Supreme Court. Writing for the majority, Cheif Justice Roberts claimed, “Because the officer’s mistake about the brake-light law was reasonable, the stop in this case was lawful under the Fourth Amendment.”
In her dissent, Justice Sotomayer criticized her colleagues for granting so much leeway to police. She wrote:
To my mind, the more administrable approach—and the one more consistent with our precedents and principles— would be to hold that an officer’s mistake of law, no matter how reasonable, cannot support the individualized suspicion necessary to justify a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
I can’t believe I am agreeing with Sonia Sotomayor, but she is exactly right. This rulingf by her colleagues on the Supreme Court, opens up citizens to the possibility of searches based on all kinds of lawful conduct, as long as the police office making the search has a “reasonable” misunderstanding of the law.
Basically to avoid being searched by the police, citizens will not only have to avoid appearing to be participating in an illegal activity, but avoid appearing to be involved in a legal activity that a police office may possible misconstrue as criminal.
So now, “ignorance of the law” is still no excuse for citizens facing a conviction, but it is now perfectly acceptable for law enforcement to be ignorant of the same laws they are supposed to be enforcing.