Supreme Court

Today at SCOTUS: Police Errors vs. the Fourth Amendment

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Credit: Phil Roeder / Flicker.com

The Supreme Court is back in business today, kicking off its 2014-2015 term with oral argument in the case of Heien v. North Carolina, a Fourth Amendment dispute with major implications for the liberty of everyone who comes into contact with the police while driving a car. Here's the story:

In 2009, North Carolina police stopped a vehicle on account of a broken right brake light. The car's left brake light worked just fine. That traffic stop led to a search of the vehicle, which in turn led to the discovery of a plastic sandwich bag filled with cocaine. The driver, Nicholas Heien, was arrested and charged with attempted drug trafficking.

But there was a problem. According to North Carolina law, motor vehicles are only required to have "a stop lamp." In other words, it's perfectly legal to drive around the state with one busted brake light so long as the other one works. The arresting officer in this case was wrong about the law and had no legal basis for the original traffic stop.

Did the officer's mistaken actions violate the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures? The North Carolina Supreme Court thought not. "So long as an officer's mistake is reasonable," that court ruled, "it may give rise to reasonable suspicion."

The Supreme Court will now review that court's questionable judgment. "The officer's mistake here derived from his own aggressive interpretation of the law," Heien's lawyers told the Court in their main brief. "Only by refusing to excuse such mistakes can officers be properly deterred from engaging in such overly ambitious readings of the traffic code, at the expense of individual liberty."

Last week I profiled three Supreme Court cases to watch in October 2014.

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27 responses to “Today at SCOTUS: Police Errors vs. the Fourth Amendment

  1. END IMMUNITY!

    1. This is in all reality the answer to 75% of the problems we face from the “law” enforcement community. I’m not including the endless victimless crime laws, just the police and their ability to abuse us without repercussion.

  2. “So long as an officer’s mistake is reasonable,” that court ruled, “it may give rise to reasonable suspicion.”

    Let’s see ….

    “So long as a civil engineer’s mistake is reasonable, it may give rise to reasonable construction.”

    “So long as a physician’s mistake is reasonable, it may give rise to reasonable surgery.”

    Yep, seems reasonable.

  3. “So long as an officer’s mistake is reasonable,” that court ruled, “it may give rise to reasonable suspicion.”

    That pretty much negates whatever is left of the 4th Amendment.

    1. I agree.

      We need more of this: “The officer’s mistake here derived from his own aggressive interpretation of the law… Only by refusing to excuse such mistakes can officers be properly deterred from engaging in such overly ambitious readings of the traffic code, at the expense of individual liberty.”

    2. Bingo. It puts the burden of proof on the accused to show that the officer’s “mistake” was either deliberate or not reasonable. Good luck with that.

  4. Didn’t someone once say something about ignorance of the law and about things that aren’t excuses? Help me out here, Officers.

    1. That only applies to the little people, not the King’s Men.

  5. Hey, shouldn’t Statler and Waldorf be in that photo?

    1. That’s the view from their heckling booth, so maybe the backs of their heads…

  6. “So long as an officer’s mistake is reasonable,” that court ruled, “it may give rise to reasonable suspicion.”

    Seriously. WTF? No it may not. Not even a little.

    1. “It’s perfectly acceptable for an officer to break some laws so he or she can enforce other laws.”

      I see.

    2. Near as I can tell, applying this standard to the little people would result in something like this:

      So long as the criminal’s mistake is reasonable, it may give rise to reasonable doubt, and the criminal should be acquitted.

  7. This is just a formality that will, in the future, save them the time of requesting a K-9 unit to mistakenly generate reasonable suspicion.

    1. That K-9 unit better watch him/her self…did they ever hear of collateral damage?

  8. The whole exclusionary rule business is fucked up to begin with. Like criminals, and only criminals, have their privacy protected, the only remedy for fault being some impairment of their prosecution, and those who turn out to have done nothing wrong are just fucked? Eh, criminal law has long seemed absurd to me for this & many other reasons. You’d never come up with such a system if you were designing it from scratch.

    1. No, Robert, the exclusionary rule applies to everyone, not just criminals, and its actually something of a compromise.

      Anyone (not just a criminal) who has evidence illegally gathered can have that evidence barred from court. That’s the exclusionary rule, in a nutshell, and it seems pretty common sense to me.

      Now, if we wanted something more aggressive, we would say that illegally seizing evidence is theft or otherwise violates whatever laws would be broken if an ordinary person did it, and charge the cops accordingly.

      So, really, the exclusionary rule is eminently reasonable, and something of a compromise at that.

      1. I’d say specifically armed robbery, since it is done with the threat of force and the officer has a gun.

    2. The exclusionary rule is the only check we have on the police. Without it they’d just search your house without cause like they do in England.

      1. The exclusionary rule is the only check we have on the police.

        But that’s the problem! What if you’re illegally searched, and there’s no prosecution, because there was no crime? How are you recompensed?

        What if the police did nothing but search everyone, everywhere, all the time, with no intention of having people prosecuted? What if they just closed the criminal courts & the police did nothing but dick with people by searching them all day & night? What would check their action then?

  9. A very similar case was adjudicated in SC Appeals Court (single tail light, car aearch, drugs found,etc.) Opinion No. 3124, filed Feb 22, 2000. Of course the State was appealing the circuit courts decision to suppress the evidence illegally obtained by the unwarranted search and seizure of Naim Jihad’s automobile. The court affirmed the Circuit Court judges ruling that was that the statutes do not pluralize stop lamp, so therefore rules of statutory construction dictate that a single stop lamp is all that is required on an auto in South Carolina.

  10. What about when the cops just make shit up, after they pull you over because you fit the “drug trafficker” profile for no reason? Scalia & Co will put a stop to THAT, right?

    RIGHT?

    1. That shit happens all the time around here. Anytime I see “weaving in his own lane” or “license plate lamp out” or “material obstructing view hanging from rear view mirror” I know it’s just a cop making shit up to pull over a black person.

  11. If it’s “three felonies a day”, you can bet it’s “1,349 misdemeanors a day” for most people. Especially when you don’t actually have to be doing anything illegal to get pulled over.

    Really scary that the NC supreme court ruled that way.

  12. In Pennsylvania, the roads are so bad that NOT weaving all over the road is probable cause for a road sobriety test.

  13. “That traffic stop led to a search of the vehicle”…

    Details of which seem pertinent.

  14. “So long as an officer’s mistake is reasonable,” that court ruled, “it may give rise to reasonable suspicion.”

    dafuq?…

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