Supreme Court Decision

Supreme Court: Searches that spawn from illegitimate traffic stops are now OK in court

"Ignorance of the law is no excuse" does not apply to government agents looking for reasons to perform a stop.


Justice in America

The Supreme Court struck another blow to the Bill of Rights with its 8-1 decision to expand police powers in situations where the police perform traffic stops based on imaginary laws.  The Heien v. North Carolinadecision held that an officer’s “reasonable mistake of law” can lead to an allowable search and arrest for contraband.

The case arose from a 2009 traffic stop in North Carolina, in which motorist Nicholas Heien was stopped by police for driving with one broken brake light.  That stop led to a search of Heien’s vehicle, which in turn led to the discovery of illegal drugs. Sergeant Matt Darisse arrested Mr. Heien because of the contents of a baggie found in his vehicle.

The twist came from the fact that North Carolina law does not provide the legal pretext for an officer to perform a stop for one broken brake light.  State law requires that drivers maintain only one operable “stop lamp” — not two.  Here is the language of North Carolina’s § 20-129 (e):

No person shall sell or operate on the highways of the State any motor vehicle, motorcycle or motor-driven cycle, manufactured after December 31, 1955, unless it shall be equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle. The stop lamp shall display a red or amber light visible from a distance of not less than 100 feet to the rear in normal sunlight, and shall be actuated upon application of the service (foot) brake. The stop lamp may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps.

The officer was mistaken about the law and had no legal grounds to force the driver to stop.  The baseless stop led to an arrest.  The courts were left to decide if the fruits of this illegitimate traffic stop could be used as evidence to uphold a conviction.

“The government should be presumed to know the laws,” argued attorney Jeffrey Fisher, who represented Mr. Heien before the Supreme Court. “It would undercut public confidence in law enforcement and the common law rule upon which the criminal law is built to say the government doesn’t have to be presumed to know the law when it acted.”

The court disagreed.  Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the maxim “ignorance of the law is no excuse” does not apply here, because Mr. Heien “is not appealing a brake light ticket.”  Instead, he is appealing a drug conviction “as to which there is no asserted mistake of fact or law.”

In other words, the police can be totally wrong in their pretexts for initiating stops, but not in the charges applied thereafter.

On December 15th, 2014, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s decision and made the case into a national precedent.  Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion, and was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan.

Chief Justice Roberts vaguely promised that the court’s decision “does not discourage officers from learning the law,” because only objectively reasonable mistakes were permitted.  “An officer can gain no Fourth Amendment advantage through a sloppy study of the laws he is duty-bound to enforce.”

Writing alone in dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor criticized her colleagues for giving the police so much leeway. “One is left to wonder,” she wrote, “why an innocent citizen should be made to shoulder the burden of being seized whenever the law may be susceptible to an interpretative question.” In Sotomayor’s view, “an officer’s mistake of law, no matter how reasonable, cannot support the individualized suspicion necessary to justify a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.”

This expansion of police power can be traced directly back to the liberty-destroying War on Drugs.  A free society cannot coexist with this legion of government agents, obsessing daily over searching citizens for contraband.