Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13–604. Argued October 6, 2014—Decided December 15, 2014 ; another case giving police more power to stop and arrest and another body blow to the Fourth Amendment.
In 2009, Nicholas Heien and a friend were traveling on a highway in North Carolina when they were stopped for having a broken tail light. Subsequently, a search of the car found a plastic bag containing cocaine. Where this case takes a turn is when we learn that the police had no legal right to stop the car because, under North Carolina law, having a single broken tail light is not an offense. The police officer was ignorant of the law.
The defense argued that just as ordinary citizens cannot claim ignorance of the law as a defense, police can’t either, and because the traffic stop was illegal, the evidence from the search that followed should not have been permitted in evidence against him.
The United States Supreme Court disagreed. By an 8-1 vote, ruled that since the officer’s mistake was reasonable, it did not violate the constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. The maxim “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” does not apply here, Chief Justice Roberts maintained, because Heien “is not appealing a brake light ticket; he is appealing a cocaine-trafficking conviction as to which there is no asserted mistake of fact or law.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the lone dissenter. She focused her concern on giving police a further ability to abuse their power. Traffic stops can be “annoying, frightening, and perhaps humiliating,” she observed. And permitting stops based on a mistaken reading of the law has “human consequences for communities and their relationships with the police.” The perverse effect of permitting police to go ahead with a mistaken reading of the law, she wrote, is to prevent or delay clarification of the law so that doubt continues to exist in the minds of the public or police about what is and is not legal.
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