The Supreme Court struck another blow to the Bill of Rights with its 8-1 decision to expand police powers in situations where the police perform traffic stops based on imaginary laws. The Heien v. North Carolina decision held that an officer’s “reasonable mistake of law” can lead to an allowable search and arrest for contraband.
The case arose from a 2009 traffic stop in North Carolina, in which motorist Nicholas Heien was stopped by police for driving with one broken brake light. That stop led to a search of Heien’s vehicle, which in turn led to the discovery of illegal drugs. Sergeant Matt Darisse arrested Mr. Heien because of the contents of a baggie found in his vehicle.
The twist came from the fact that North Carolina law does not provide the legal pretext for an officer to perform a stop for one broken brake light. State law requires that drivers maintain only one operable “stop lamp” — not two….
The officer was mistaken about the law and had no legal grounds to force the driver to stop. The baseless stop led to an arrest. The courts were left to decide if the fruits of this illegitimate traffic stop could be used as evidence to uphold a conviction.
“The government should be presumed to know the laws,” argued attorney Jeffrey Fisher, who represented Mr. Heien before the Supreme Court. “It would undercut public confidence in law enforcement and the common law rule upon which the criminal law is built to say the government doesn’t have to be presumed to know the law when it acted.”
The court disagreed. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the maxim “ignorance of the law is no excuse” does not apply here, because Mr. Heien “is not appealing a brake light ticket.” Instead, he is appealing a drug conviction “as to which there is no asserted mistake of fact or law.”
In other words, the police can be totally wrong in their pretexts for initiating stops, but not in the charges applied thereafter.
By Staff – Police State USA –