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SCOTUS Rules Evidence Cannot Be Suppressed Just Because an Officer Made a "Reasonable" Traffic Stop Mistake

December 16, 2014  | 

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that police officers don't necessarily violate a person's constitutional rights when they stop a car based on a mistaken understanding of the law. The ruling prompted a lone dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who warned that the court's decision could exacerbate public suspicion of police in some communities.

In 2009, Nicholas Heien and a friend were traveling down a North Carolina highway when they were pulled over for having a broken tail light. A subsequent search of the car found a plastic bag containing cocaine. It turns out, though, that police had no legal right to stop the car in the first place because, under North Carolina law, having a single broken tail light is not an offense. Heien contended 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.

But the Supreme Court, 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, NPR reports.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the keystone of the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable search and seizure is the word "unreasonable." And in this case, the officer's belief that having a broken tail light was illegal counted as a reasonable mistake. The traffic stop and the subsequent consensual search of the car were therefore also reasonable.

Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

kevCopAz @ 12/16/2014 4:40 PM

wow, I applause the Justices, even the Libs ,other then the ultra Obama appointed Lib and social Justice idiot Sotomayor voted the correct way. God Bless them for their foresight and fairness in this situation. Did you catch the reasoning of Justice Sotomayor… could exacerbate the public suspicion"??? Why in the world should that be part of a LEGAL decision making process. This shows she is nothing more then a social engineering Liberal who should not sit on the court, she is a political hack, not a Justice.

Trigger @ 12/16/2014 4:50 PM

Excellent job Supreme Court. My only question is why would a state have a law making "having a single broken tail light is not an offense". We make a lot of great arrests on basic equipment violations. It was kind of an understanding that if a person did not take care of their lights they probably had something else illegal going on and this usually was true. If nothing else it's was always a good stop for some "PR" to just let the driver know that their light was not working or damaged.

TheRookie @ 12/16/2014 6:31 PM

Wow, A rare fair outcome from SCOTUS. They all must have had their "Geritol" that morning.

MJA @ 12/16/2014 10:47 PM

25 years ago, I stopped a car with no front plate in California and arrested the driver for DUI. Problem was, the car was out of Florida and they don't require a front plate. The judge ruled, like SCOTUS, that the stop was reasonable because a cop can not be expected to know license plate laws in every state.

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