U.S. Supreme Court Rules That Police Can Stop for “Reasonable Mistake of Law”
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a law enforcement officer can stop a vehicle based on a reasonable mistake of law. fn1. This ruling both defines and restricts your Fourth Amendment rights. A law enforcement officer can stop you on the street or while you are driving if he or she thinks you are breaking the law. This is true even if the officer is wrong. Such a stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. The stop is defined as reasonable.
In the pertinent case, Heien v. North Carolina, the officer stopped a vehicle which appeared to have only one working brake light. The officer thought it was a violation of state law to drive a vehicle with one broken brake light. It was not. North Carolina only requires a vehicle to have one working brake light.
Obviously, there are a lot of interesting issues presented in this ruling, not the least of which is the obvious: the police are able to legally detain you based on a mistake of law, however, a mistake of law is never a defense for those accused of a crime. Secondly, is this ruling opens the door for law enforcement officers to claim a “mistake”, which will undoubtedly be upheld by friendly (and so often former prosecutor) judges. But, to me, the most interesting implied admission by this court is that the law, generally, has simply become so complicated that even those tasked with enforcing it can’t keep it straight.
By law, we, the citizens (but no longer the police citizens), are deemed to know every single code, regulation, tax provision, etc. and are expected to be in full compliance. This is so even if the law is so confusing that law enforcement officers can’t figure it out. However, we are seeing the accelerated passage of laws every single legislative session by local, state and federal governments; sometimes by the hundreds. And yet, we are deemed to have perfect knowledge of every one of them. The Supreme Court is, for the very first time, recognizing this complexity, but only as it applies to the government, the very people who are in the best position to know what the law is. It’s hypocritical and further decays our ability to defend against unreasonable police intrusion.
Cases about reasonable mistakes of law often arise after an officer has stopped a person and conducted a search of the person’s body and clothing or vehicle. If an officer has stopped you, conducted a search, and found anything incriminating, call Gabriel Quinnan, an experienced criminal defense attorney.
Gabe Quinnan can tell you if the officer’s mistake of law was reasonable. He can represent you in trial or negotiate for an improved plea offer. Gabe Quinnan is available to represent you if you live in Sonoma, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, or Lake County. Call Gabe Quinnan at (707) 540-2356 today.
1. Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___ (2014).
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