A recent case by the US Supreme Court has again reduced the amount of law the police officers are required to actually know in order to pull a vehicle over for a traffic violation. In December of 2014, the Supreme Court decided Heien v. North Carolina, where they took it on themselves to change the way we view the 4th Amendment, the police, and our believe that officers must educate themselves when enforcing the law.
The Court found that if an officer makes a mistake in the law, then the officer can conduct a search under the Fourth Amendment. The Court stated that “the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them “fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.”
In Heien, a police officer stopped a vehicle because one of its two brake lights was out, but a single working brake light is all the law required under North Carolina law. The Supreme Court held that a mistake of law was reasonable, thereby giving the officer reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle.
It was decided long ago that police may make mistakes of fact, as long as it is reasonable. For example, if an officer mistakenly believes someone gave consent to search a vehicle, but that person did not have authority to consent, then the evidence obtained from the search can be used against the defendant. Another example would include a situation where an officer made a mistake and arrested the wrong person. The arrest would be reasonable, although it is a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
However, the new decision has broadened the scope of the police officer’s reach when it comes to officer mistakes. Under the new ruling, the Supreme Court has taken more of our rights away under the Fourth Amendment. Now, incompetent officers may conduct “lawful” searches and seizures even when officers should be held to a standard higher than the average person when it comes to knowing the law. If police officers do not know the law, then how are they allowed to enforce it?
Clearly, this new case has again weakened the Fourth Amendment by allowing officers to disregard learning the law in exchange for citizens to be subject to unreasonable searches and seizures. Seeing that there are approximately one hundred million traffic stops each year, we are all subjected to the new standard of police making not only mistakes of fact, but making mistakes in law where we believe officers will only pull us over when we committed a crime, not laws that are capricious and arbitrary.
And remember, once the police have initiated a traffic stop, it is easy for them to broaden their investigation, including a warrantless search of our vehicles. Therefore, if you are pulled over, don't talk and don't consent to a search of your vehicle.
If you have been wrongly accused of committing a traffic offense, contact an attorney to determine if you actually broke any laws. Obviously, just because the officer said you did does not make it the case any longer. See our traffic section for more information on how to fight your traffic ticket.