In December, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (8-1 decision) that a police officer may stop a vehicle based on a misunderstanding of the law without violating the Fourth Amendment.
Heien v. North Carolina
The case, Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13-604, concerned a man who was pulled over by a police officer for having a broken brake light. However, North Carolina permits drivers to a operate vehicles that has at least one working brake light. The vehicle was searched after the man gave permission to the officer. The officer then discovered cocaine in the vehicle and the man was charged with drug trafficking.
Since North Carolina permits drivers to operate vehicles that have at least one working brake light, the stop by the officer could have been deemed unreasonable. But, both the North Carolina Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, stating that the mistake was reasonable and did not infringe upon the man’s Fourth Amendment rights.
The Fourth Amendment
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Unreasonable Search and Seizure
Police officers may not search the property of an individual without first establishing probable cause, and in this case it could be argued that the officer in question did not have probable cause under the laws of North Carolina. The state allows a vehicle to operate even with a broken brake light as long as one brake light is operational. Yet the Supreme Court did not think that the officer’s mistaken understanding of the law was unreasonable.
“An officer can gain no Fourth Amendment advantage through a sloppy study of the laws he is duty-bound to enforce,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.
What This Means for You
The problem with this ruling is that it sets a standard that allows police officers to be ignorant of the laws that they are charged with enforcing, so long as it is believed to be a reasonable misunderstanding. Unfortunately, what is “reasonable” or “unreasonable” is completely subjective.
If you are pulled over for unjust reasons, you should not be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure. If you have been pulled over and you believe your rights have been disregarded by law enforcement, make sure you call an experienced NJ traffic lawyer.
Contact NJ Traffic Lawyers Villani & DeLuca
Villani & DeLuca NJ traffic lawyers will help you fight for your rights afforded to you by the state. Do not hesitate to contact a representative of Villani & DeLuca, P.C. by calling (732) 965-3350. NJ traffic lawyers are available 24/7 to assist clients fighting traffic violations.