Originally published December 22 2014
Supreme Court rules cops can search your car and seize evidence even if the stop was unlawful
by J. D. Heyes
(NaturalNews) Police officers are able to use evidence in court that they seized during a traffic stop even if turns out that the cops pulled a car over initially based on their misunderstanding of the law, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.
In an overwhelmingly lopsided 8-1 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, justices said that such stops do not violate the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
As reported by The Associated Press (AP):
The ruling came in a North Carolina case in which a police officer pulled over Nicholas Heien's car because the right brake light was out, although the left one still worked. A consensual search led to the discovery of cocaine in the trunk.
A state appeals court said the stop was impermissible because a quirky state law only requires a car to have one functioning brake light. But the state's highest court reversed, finding that the officer's mistaken reading of the law was reasonable.
The majority of justices on the Supreme Court agreed with the state's high court, in finding that the Fourth Amendment does require police to act in a reasonable manner, but not in a perfect one. In his majority opinion, Roberts said that just like a police officer's factual misunderstanding can justify a traffic stop, a reasonable misunderstanding of the law is enough to satisfy the constitutional requirement.
No, you're reading the Fourth Amendment wrong
The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling means that Heien cannot try to have his conviction of drug trafficking overturned by trying to keep the evidence of cocaine found in his car out of court.
In his earlier trial, attorneys for Heien argued a standard that is often applied to citizens: Ignorance of the law is no excuse for those charged with crimes, so there should not be a double standard for police.
Roberts said, however, that only means that the state cannot impose a punishment for something that is not illegal, according to the AP.
"Heien is not appealing a brake-light ticket," Roberts wrote. "He is appealing a cocaine-trafficking conviction as to which there is no asserted mistake of fact or law."
The AP provided additional details:
Heien was a passenger when his car was pulled over on a North Carolina highway in 2009 because the right brake light was out. Officer Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff's Department issued a warning citation over the light to the driver, Maynor Javier Vasquez.
Darisse then asked for permission to search the inside of the car and Heiein consented. The search revealed a plastic sandwich bag of cocaine in the trunk.
"Reasonable mistake" of the law okay for cops, not for citizens?
Roberts said in his opinion that the cop's decision to pull the car over in the first place was reasonable, considering the confusing way in which the state law was written. Under the decades-old North Carolina law, all cars manufactured after 1955 are required to have a "stop lamp" that can be a part of "one or more other rear lamps." Until this point, no previous court had ever said the law was intended to require a single working light in the modern era.
"I suspect most of you here were surprised to learn that only one brake light is required in North Carolina, even if you are from North Carolina," Roberts announced as he read his opinion from the bench.
The state and the Obama Justice Department had argued that disallowing such stops would create too much uncertainty into the daily decisions and actions of police in the state who need to otherwise make quick decisions. They argued that, for police anyway, reasonable mistakes of the law are okay, especially when dealing with a statute that is complex and could be subject to various interpretations (and how many laws would qualify for this vanilla description?).
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the lone dissenter, the AP reported. "She said an officer's mistake of law 'no matter how reasonable, cannot support the individualized suspicion necessary to justify a seizure under the Fourth Amendment,'" the newswire said.
The notion that the law "is definite and knowable sits at the foundation of our legal system," she added. "And it is courts, not officers, that are in the best position to interpret the laws."
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