December 16, 2014

Heien v. North Carolina: Status Quo Continued

Yesterday the Supreme Court decided Heien v. North Carolina, further affirming that the law means one thing for the police, and something else for the rest of us.

The relevant facts are simple: a police officer stopped a vehicle for having only one functioning brake light (although the stop was motivated by the officer's suspicion of the driver's "stiff" posture). The stop led to questioning, which led to a consensual search of the vehicle, which turned up cocaine, resulting in the prosecution of the car's owner, who was a passenger at the time.

The trial court rejected the defendant's motion to suppress the seizure of the cocaine because it flowed from the seemingly legitimate stop for the faulty brake light. It turns out, however, that in North Carolina, there is nothing illegal about having only faulty brake light. This means that the officer had no lawful basis to stop the car in the first place, and so the appellate court reversed the trial court, finding that since the stop was not lawful, the cocaine turned up in the subsequent search was fruit of the poisonous tree. The state's high court reversed again, finding that the mistake was reasonable, so who cares if the stop was lawful. The case then went to the Supremes, who agreed (with Sotomayor being the one dissenter). In sum, the Court decided that the officer's legal mistake was indeed "reasonable" and therefore of no consequence.

To understand the bias inherent in that ruling, let's flip it around. Can we, as citizens, invoke the "reasonable mistake" or "I didn't realize that was the law" rule when we are arrested? Hardly. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. The fact that you did not realize something was illegal is no defense, no matter how reasonable your belief. Unless you are a police officer; then apparently it is perfectly ok.

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