Ellison’s Must Read of the Day

• December 16, 2014 10:37 am


My must read of the day is, "Supreme Court Upholds North Carolina Traffic Stop," in NPR:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that police officers don't necessarily violate a person's constitutional rights when they stop a car based on a mistaken understanding of the law. The ruling prompted a lone dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who warned that the court's decision could exacerbate public suspicion of police in some communities. […]

But the Supreme Court, by an 8-1 vote, ruled that since the officer's mistake was reasonable, it did not violate the constitution's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the keystone of the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable search and seizure is the word "unreasonable." And in this case, the officer's belief that having a broken tail light was illegal counted as a reasonable mistake. The traffic stop and the subsequent consensual search of the car were therefore also reasonable.

The maxim "ignorance of the law is no excuse," does not apply here, Chief Justice Roberts maintained, because Heien "is not appealing a brake light ticket; he is appealing a cocaine-trafficking conviction as to which there is no asserted mistake of fact or law."

When I first heard the Supreme Court would take up this case, I thought it was one of the most interesting cases they would tackle this year and I'm surprised by the ruling—and even more surprised by how little disagreement there was over it.

The argument in this case seemed pretty simple. Heien's defense wasn't that he didn't commit a crime, rather that the initial stop, which uncovered the crime, was unlawful and therefore everything that occurred after should not be permissible in court.

The main point was accurate—Heien and a passenger were stopped because the car had a broken taillight, but under North Carolina law it's legal to only have one stoplight—therefore, Heien wasn't in violation of a traffic law and he should not have been pulled over.

The cop didn't purposely pull him over for a nonexistent violation, he thought it was against the law, and it turns out North Carolina code is confusing, and even conflicting, on the matter.

Heien's argument was, in part, that "ignorance of the law" isn't an excuse for the average citizen, so it shouldn't be an acceptable excuse for law enforcement. One broken taillight is not illegal. The police didn't have a legal reason to stop the car, and therefore they didn't have the grounds to legally find and obtain the cocaine (even though Heien consented to the search).

On it's surface, the larger argument makes complete sense to me. I have little sympathy for the guy who gave consent to a search, but why would we set a different standard for police? The traffic stop wasn't legal, and if "I didn't know that was illegal" won't work as a defense for me, I don't see why it should work for anyone else.

This is arguably a false premise, because, as SCOTUS blog notes, a 1957 case (Lambert v. California) actually ruled that ignorance of the law can be an appropriate defense for the average citizen—but I question the frequency that defense is used and would greatly question how often it is successfully used.

I realize there are legal nuances to this argument and the ruling, but a broad acceptance that police can "reasonably" misunderstand the law makes me recoil.

Police are paid by taxpayers to know and enforce the law. Given that, it seems logical that we (and the courts) have a higher expectation of them and their understating of the law than what we might have for Joe Smith.

Did the Supreme Court make the correct decision? I don't know. I don't have the legal knowledge to confidently make that conclusion, but as an average citizen, I'm incredibly uncomfortable with this ruling and the precedent it may set for future cases.

Published under: Supreme Court