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SCOTUS Hears Case on Officer's Mistaken Traffic Stop That Led to Cocaine Bust

October 07, 2014  | 

The Supreme Court opened its new term Monday pondering whether a police officer's misunderstanding of the law can justify a traffic stop that led to the seizure of illegal drugs.

Several of the justices questioned whether it was reasonable for the North Carolina officer to pull over a car because one of its two brake lights was burned out, even though a quirky state law requires only one light to be functional, the Associated Press reports.

Monday's argument on the police action involves an appeal by Nicholas Heien, whose Ford Escort was pulled over when an officer saw that the right rear brake light wasn't working. The officer found cocaine during an ensuing search, and Heien was later convicted of drug trafficking.

The case tests whether the officer's mistaken understanding of the law makes the traffic stop unreasonable and the search a violation of Heien's constitutional rights. A divided state Supreme Court said the mistake was reasonable enough to justify the routine traffic stop and refused to toss out the drug evidence.

A decision in the case of Heien v. North Carolina, 14-604, should come by late spring.

Comments (6)

Displaying 1 - 6 of 6

kevCopAz @ 10/7/2014 4:44 PM

lets face it the officer should know what he is doing, but once in awhile an oops turns to something good.

Ryan @ 10/7/2014 6:13 PM

Issue #1: NC only makes you have one functioning brake light?
FMVSS/CMVSS 108 clearly states what lights are required, where to be placed, color, ect. I don't see the issue. State doesn't require it but the feds do....

Dave @ 10/7/2014 8:44 PM

Ryan, I agree with you. That was also my thought exactly. Illinois Law also requires "one" stop light. Feds also require the 3rd (center light) but for the most part, it is unenforced. Vehicle code can be a useful tool if properly applied. I had a trainee, that was experienced from another dept, that stopped a vehicle once during training. I did not observe a violation. When I asked why he stopped him? The trainee stated "he touched the center line". I explained that he had to cross the line. I requested he show it to me in the book. needless to say he couldn't but still tried to argue. He didn't last long with our department.

TheRookie @ 10/7/2014 9:38 PM

I'd never thought in a million years that I couldn't start a 'reasonable cause' stop due to a tail-light out. Same as a headlamp out. It's a good PR stop or PC is derived for better results. With all my time in I never thought laws would vary as much as they do from state to state. After retiring in Colorado & moving to Kansas I was stunned at how different it really is. Started looking at North Dakota Century Code when travelling there. Way different.

Of course the glorious U.S. Supreme Court could find the time on this minor blip but they couldn't find the time to settle the LGBT/GLAAD special laws/rights. Don't consider U.S.S.C. highly at this time.

SCOTUS: 9 People Running Amuck.
6 To Crusty & Old To Make Sane Decisions.
1 Who's Book Smart but Don't Have a Lick of Common Sense.
1 Who's Never Ever Been a Judge.
And the Boss Who Has a Hard Time Deciding What Color of Underwear To Wear Beneath His Robe.
Poetry in Motion Them Court Jesters are.

Ima Leprechaun @ 10/8/2014 6:26 AM

This is where a unified national traffic code would make sense. Some states require two working rear lights and some only require one. Plus in some cases city codes vary leaving officers very confused as to what a local law really is. If the traffic code (for equipment and moving violations) were the same everywhere this would make a lot of sense but of course there is no sense in Law Enforcement traffic or criminal code. For drivers its almost impossible to know what is right in one state and not right in another. I remember my father being run off the road and taken out of his car at gun point in Virginia for having his headlights on in the daytime. Where we lived the Governor decreed that every car should have headlights on in the daytime in honor of a holiday. I guess at that time in Virginia driving with headlights on in daylight meant the driver was being held hostage. Who can really know that one Innocuous law in one state was a live and death struggle in another.

Capt. Crunch @ 10/8/2014 11:49 AM

The law was made back when cars were manufactured with only one tail light.
Example= 1931 Ford Model A

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