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?