A policeman’s misunderstanding of the law, which resulted in an improper traffic stop and ultimately a drug case against a North Carolina driver, can be overlooked to pursue prosecution, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Civil rights experts at the Rutherford Institute, viewed the decision in the case of Nicholas Heien with alarm, calling it “a green light” for government officials “to routinely violate the law.”
“This case may have started out with an improper traffic stop, but where it will end – given the turbulence of our age, with it is police overreach, military training drills on American soil, domestic surveillance, SWAT team raids, asset forfeiture, wrongful convictions and corporate corruption – is not hard to predict,” said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, which had filed a brief in the case.
“This ruling is what I would call a one-way, non-refundable ticket to the police state,” he said.
Heien was pulled over for a non-functioning brake light, but he was driving legally, because North Carolina law allows for only one functioning brake light. During the stop, the officer searched his vehicle and found cocaine, which led to a conviction for cocaine trafficking.
The high court Monday ruled 8-1 in Heien v. North Carolina that police officers are in compliance with the 4th Amendment “if the violation results from a ‘reasonable’ mistake about the law on the part of police.”
The court said evidence obtained by police during a traffic stop that itself was not legally justified can be used to prosecute.
The Rutherford Institute had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hold law enforcement officials accountable to knowing and following the law. But Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only justice who adopted that position. She warned the ruling “means further eroding the 4th Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down.”
It was in April 2009 when a Surry County, North Carolina, law enforcement officer stopped a Ford Escort traveling on Interstate 77, because of a brake light was not working properly.
The officer believed state law prohibited driving a car with one broken brake light.
However, the law requires only one working light, so there was no legal justification for the traffic stop, Rutherford argued.
But during the course of the stop, the officer asked for permission to search the car, and Heien consented.
The officer found cocaine, and Heien tried to suppress the evidence “in light of the fact that the officer’s pretext for the stop was erroneous and therefore unlawful.”
The trial court rejected a motion to suppress information regarding the stop from the court case. The North Carolina Supreme Court then ruled the officer’s mistake was “reasonable,” so the evidence could be used for the prosecution.
In the Supreme Court case, Rutherford Institute attorneys warned against allowing government agents to “benefit” from their mistakes of law, deliberate or otherwise, lest it become an incentive for abuse.
WND reported in October the warnings of critics that the case could erode the 4th Amendment, which is to protect citizens and their property from reasonable searches and seizures.
Heien’s attorney, Jeffrey Fisher, said officers should be held to the same presumptions to which citizens must answer.
“Mr. Chief Justice, you asked, I think, about the ignorance canon. The state’s response was, well, if somebody is reasonably mistaken about the law, we would convict him,” Fisher said. “And the reason why is because we would assume he knew the law. We would assume … they knew the law when they acted.
“And all we are asking for today is for the exact same assumption to apply to police officers,” he said.
A brief submitted in the case by attorneys at William J. Olson P.C., the United States Justice Foundation and Weinberg, Jacobs & Toiani stated: “It is well established that a police traffic stop of an automobile constitutes a Fourth Amendment seizure of the automobile and its occupants.”
Fisher argued the traffic stop would never have taken place had not the officer made a mistake, meaning there would have been no search and no consequent charges.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said: “In this case, an officer stopped a vehicle because one of its two brake lights was out, but a court later determined that a single working break light was all the law required. The question presented is whether such a mistake of law can nonetheless give rise to the reasonable suspicion necessary to uphold the seizure under the Fourth Amendment. We hold that it can.”
However, Associate Justice Sonja Sotomayor wrote in her dissent: “This result is bad for citizens, who need to know their rights and responsibilities, and it is bad for police, who would benefit from clearer direction.”
Sotomayor said she had not seen “any persuasive argument that law enforcement will be unduly hampered by a rule that precludes consideration of mistakes of law in the reasonableness inquiry.”
“After all, there is no indication that excluding an officer’s mistake of law from the reasonableness inquiry has created a problem for law enforcement in the overwhelming number of circuits which have adopted that approach.”