Skip to comments.US Supreme Court To Rule On Cops Who Get Law Wrong (traffic stops)
Posted on 08/04/2014 11:32:56 AM PDT by Ken H
Oral arguments set for US Supreme Court to decide whether a traffic stop is invalid when the police officer is wrong about the law.
Is a police officer's traffic stop valid if he is wrong about the law? The US Supreme Court announced it would take up that question when it returns in October to hear the case of Nicholas Brady Heien.
On April 29, 2009, Surry County Sheriff's Sergeant Matt Darisse was on Interstate 77 when he saw a Ford Escort hit the brakes, and the right-side light did not illuminate. Sergeant Darisse decided to pull over the Ford, which was driven by Maynor Javier Vasquez with Heien asleep in the back seat. After the driver's license came back clean, Sergeant Darisse handed him a warning.
While questioning Vasquez, however, the sergeant became suspicious. Vasquez said he was on his way to West Virginia, but Heien said they were headed to Kentucky. Both Vasquez and Heien consented to a search of the vehicle which turned up cocaine.
The sergeant was wrong to pull over the Ford, as it is legal to drive in North Carolina as long as one brake light is functional. Liberal and conservative groups have joined to urge the US Supreme Court to reject the December 2012 decision of North Carolina's high court, which held that since it had never ruled on the stop light issue and the officer's interpretation was "reasonable," the stop should be considered valid.
The Cato Institute, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and American Civil Liberties Union teamed up to file a friend of the court brief arguing police ought to have the same duty as citizens to know and obey the law. The groups urged the US Supreme Court to uphold the principle that a traffic stop is always invalid when the cop is wrong about the law.
"The North Carolina Supreme Court's rule threatens to undermine law enforcement," the groups wrote. "It understates the importance of legal training for law enforcement officials, as well as diminishing the public perception of law enforcement officials' knowledge and authority."
North Carolina prosecutors argued the single stop light law was "antiquated" and that the Fourth Amendment does not require police officers to be perfect. As long as the suspicion is reasonable, they argued, that was good enough.
"No one disagrees that the officer stopped petitioner's vehicle based upon a reasonable belief of a violation," North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper argued last month. "That reasonable belief was dispelled only by a 'surprising' appellate court ruling that for the first time construed a traffic law on the books for more than fifty years to require only one functioning brake light. The Supreme Court of North Carolina correctly ruled that reasonable mistakes of law, like this one, can support reasonable suspicion."
Oral arguments before the US Supreme Court have been set for October 6.
If ignorance of the law is not an excuse for a civilian, then, a law officer should be expected to have just a much knowledge of the law as the civilian. In fact, the law officer is expected to have a lot more knowledge of the laws which he/she is enforcing.
This ridiculous Court? Of course they will have no problem with this.
Sadly, they will never buy your reasonable argument.
Otherwise the cop could make up an imaginary law to justify the stop as an excuse to search a vehicle.
If it is legal for the lawmen to break the law then it is legal for their bosses the citizens to break the law.
Cops already routinely stop vehicles whenever they want to, for spurious or made-up reasons. Usually it doesn’t end up becoming an issue in a trial.
They sincerely have an assumption of elitism - gov’t and agents thereof are a separate and special class.
Police are only trained to shoot dogs ,special Muslim training Sir
I was under the impression the cops could stop you for nothing at all (ie. checkpoints)
So I don’t see why it would be an issue if they stopped you for something they mistakenly thought was against the law, since they could stop you for nothing if they wanted.
I'm half convinced they'd do this anyway.
Had a cop try to give me a ticket for turning left on red. No one told him in Ga you turn left on red after yielding if you completely stop AND it’s a one way turning on a one way. After radioing in he let me go.
CWII Spark — When those tasked with “enforcing” the law have no requirement to KNOW the law, everything they do is susceptible to questioning as ‘arbitrary’.
I am of the opinion that this comes down to a detention, or a custodial or non-custodial stop. In a non-custodial stop, the citizen is not required to identify, or even engage with the officer in any way. This is no different than being approached by someone on the street.
The next level of stop is detention. I believe that the Terry vs Ohio ruling establishes “reasonable suspicion” as the criteria or the stop and question.
The highest level is a custodial stop. This should require probable cause.
As I see this particular situation, the officer had “reasonable suspicion” that a broken tail light was a traffic violation.
Well, they do. But "officially" it should only be when they think you're about to commit a crime, are committing a crime, or have committed a crime.
Things like checkpoints are considered to be an exception to that rule. Courts have signed off on the practice, so long as certain criteria are met.
1) I have a hard time believing the sheriff didn’t know that it was legal to drive with one functioning taillight. I could understand confusion over a more obscure traffic law, but you’d think every LEO in NC would know the taillight regulations.
2) Even if we assume the sheriff was sincerely mistaken, I think the court should throw out the search, as if they deem this stop acceptable, some cops (not all or even most but some) around the country will start “forgetting” traffic laws, in order to make random stops without reasonable suspicion, much less probable cause.
I wouldn’t be shocked it the court punts this one, by saying that since the suspects consented to the search, the point about whether the stop was legal or not is moot.
So is this the “Well there oughta be a law...” defense?
road stops bother me....unless they’re looking for a criminal
So on other words, cops can simply make up laws.
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A major principal of our Common Law based legal system is, that if something is not expressly illegal, it is by default legal.
This being said, in this case there was no justified reasonable suspicion to permit the stop, determined after the fact, so without that, there could be no determination of probable cause, and no arrest. Thus anything found after the initial error should be inadmissible.
Look at that! Peace officers wrapped up like muzzies, on their way to shoot a Irish Setter?
The fact that they took on this case is a strong indication thay will reverse the lower court.
That reasonable belief was dispelled only by a ‘surprising’ appellate court ruling that for the first time construed a traffic law on the books for more than fifty years to require only one functioning brake light.
Apparently, there was a new interpretation of the law based on this case. There’s no way the officer could have known.
Yep, they will follow a person for miles sometimes just looking for an excuse to pull someone over. Before the advent of dashcams, the officer would often just lie about the reason for the stop such as, “You crossed the yellow line” or “You didn’t use your blinker to change lanes” or some such crap. And of course, they do this because they can justify seizing the driver’s car and any money they find if they even SUSPECT the property was obtained with the sale of drugs.
Many posters on this thread believe that the guilty people should be acquitted because "police ought to have the same duty as citizens to know and obey the law." A better argument, offered by Blood of Tyrants follows immediately:
Otherwise the cop could make up an imaginary law to justify the stop as an excuse to search a vehicle.
In other words there is a higher value at stake here than merely punishing the guilty, assuring that our rights of privacy are protected against overreaching police. That means that the right of privacy is so important that we are willing to have guilty people go free to prevent its abuse.
Note, that in turn assumes that there is a relationship between denying police the right to use the fruits of an improper search and maintaining our constitutional right of privacy. Is there no other way to protect our privacy and still convict the guilty? Is this a good case in which to quash the evidence and acquit guilty people? Is this a case of overzealous police? Hardly.
Our general rights of privacy are not at stake from cops making an honest mistake in conducting a search based on an honest misconception of the law. Therefore, unless an argument can be made that to permit such searches under honest mistake of law circumstances is to open the floodgates to improper searches, the evidence should be admitted.
So these facts we have two hurdles to overcome if we want to exclude the evidence: First, we must agree that withholding the evidence discourages police from making improper searches. The Supreme Court has already made this decision in the affirmative. Second, cops will likely make up laws in order to justify improper searches.
Merely to argue that the police should be held to the standard of knowing the law because the public is held to that standard is not persuasive. A practical level, police have to act under extreme pressure in a moments notice without the ability to go to law library and research difficult search and seizure questions or questions of law in general. The test should be whether the policeman makes the judgment of breaking of the law in good faith. This is a factual question which could be handled either by a jury or by a judge in a search and seizure hearing. The law makes those judgments all the time. It asks was this reasonable under the circumstances? There is no rational relationship between protecting privacy and the idea that cops should be held to the same standard as citizens. That might be a satisfying emotional argument but it does not on its face relate to our constitutional right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.
To rule that under all circumstances and in all cases in which a policeman misconceived the law renders evidence inadmissible against an admittedly guilty party is a remedy that is unnecessarily broad to achieve its proper constitutional purpose of protecting the public from invasive and unreasonable searches and seizures. It is unnecessary because the courts have proven ability to litigate these issues and determine reasonableness. To propound an arbitrary rule is likely to cause more societal harm as guilty people are released back into society to commit more crime.
This is not the case of SWAT teams gone wild or of rogue policeman extorting innocent civilians, this is a run-of-the-mill case which can be easily handled on its own merits by the court system.
AHad a cop follow me off of an interstate and onto the off-ramp. The off-ramp was uphill, and there was a stop sign at the top. I was driving a standard shift vehiucle, so I rolled up to the stop sign, and began to roll backward almost immediately. I pulled out and the cop stopped me for a stop sign violation, even though I tried to explain to him that for me to roll backwards at some point I had to be going exactly zero miles per hour. He didn’t get it, and wrote the ticket. I went to court and the judge actually admonished the prosecution for not throwing the ticket out. He wondered, aloud, what kind of education the police and prosecution had received to not understand a basic law of physics.
You assume the cop didn’t know the law. Surely this isn’t the first time that the cop had ever ticketed someone for a broken taillight.
I submit that the cop had an ulterior motive for stopping the vehicle: because he knew that if he found drugs or SUSPECTED that drugs were involved, he could seize the car and any cash he found and keep them to fund the department’s JBT/SWAT squads.
If the finders of fact conclude that the mistake was honest, the evidence should be admitted.
If the finder of fact concludes that the mistake was contrived and dishonest, the evidence should be excluded. It should be determined on a case-by-case basis. If we make an arbitrary law we are fashioning yet one more remedy for all cases that lets a guilty party go in every case. That remedy is not necessary.
I must disagree. "Reasonable suspicion" comes into play when there is some uncertainty. All of the facts are not in.
But there is no uncertainty here. The facts are all in. A single broken tail light is not an infraction. It is up to the cop - and the driver as well - to know the facts.
What was the support for the cop’s presumption that the vehicle code applied to that car, or the driver of that car, at the time of the stop?
checkpoints and traffic stop are two different critters. You might want to bone up on that.
Remember the Border Patrolman who said the Boy Scout couldn't take a picture of him, put a gun on him, and searched the Boy Scouts' van for four hours? If he gets to interpret the law, he's off scot free... whether he finds anything or not.
Cops do not get to interpret the law, cases have been thrown out many times because cops acted stupidly. The law doesn’t change depending on the mind of a cop.
I couldn't agree more that it's the way it should be. However, without the help of a good lawyer, the cops can cause problems by overstepping their bounds. Decisions like this hopefully knock that back a bit.
And they expected to be released from their possession of incriminating dope because of a broken tail light??!! After the fact of practically telling the arresting officer of their guilt? B. S. !! Red meat here for the ACLU ambulance-chasers and other law-scorners.
Does the law enforcement officer have to know, to the most minute scrutiny, every letter of the Federal law, State Code, county statutes, village regulations, etc before hindering a citizen's progress for further interrogation? Of course not.
Where is the line drawn? One would expect that a highway patrol officer would be well-informed as to the condition standards to be met for vehicle operation on the public highways under his purview. And that is probably true. It appears that the officer was detaining the vehicle for failure in an area which would have legally and logically caused it to fail the Vehicle Inspection requirements:
The question is whether or not the officer correctly judged the vehicle able to pass the minimum vehicle safety specifications according to state code. Was it equipped with safety equipment operating so as to pass the yearly Vehicle Inspection?
The answer seems to be "No."
Here is the North Carolina standards, which the officer must have been well-acquainted, in this respect:
North Carolina Administrative Code 19A 03D Section .0500
19A NCAC 03D .0533 LIGHTS
. . .
(b) Rear Lights shall conform to the requirements of G.S. 20-129(d). Taillights shall not be approved if:
(1) All original equipped rear lamps or the equivalent are not in working order.
(2) The lens is cracked, discolored, or of a color other than red.
(3) They do not operate properly and project white light on the license plate.
(4) They are not securely mounted.
(c) Stoplights shall conform to the requirements of G.S. 20-129(g). A stoplight shall not be approved if:
(1) The lens is cracked, discolored or of a color other than red or amber. Minor cracks on lenses shall not lead
to disapproval unless water is likely to short out the bulb.
(2) It does not come on when pressure is applied to foot brake.
(3) It is not securely mounted so as to project a light to the rear.
. . .
All these fools had to do was to thank the officer for bringing the taillight failure to their attention, and respectfully decline any further delays with their journey, clam up, and leave.
as far as I am aware, a police man can walk up to anyone they wish and talk to them, ask them for ID ect.
So can I. They can politely just say, “No. “ And continue on their way without further harrassment.
I’m going to really enjoy reading the oral arguments on this.
They are LEO’s not Peace officers.
What is a LEO?
Why is SCOUTS hearing a case about how one specific state runs its police powers? What is the stretched constitutional basis for them hearing this?
The police powers of a given state should be manged by the people of that state by through the ballot by representation and referendum.
As far as I am concerned, if the officer stops me because he does not know the law, I ought to be able to collect any amount I deem appropriate from him.
I don’t get the option of deciding what I feel is an appropriate fine when I am wrong so why should he?
Law Enforcement Officer