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SCOTUS ruling: Cop gets law wrong but defendant pays the price

Last week, we wrote about challenging the lawfulness of a traffic stop, which is one option for defending against DUI charges. An officer must have a reasonable suspicion that a crime or violation has occurred if he wants to pull over a driver. This is often based on erratic driving that could indicate alcohol impairment or an observed problem with the vehicle that violates Wisconsin safety laws.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court recently delivered a ruling that criminal defense advocates view as an unfair double standard. Ignorance of the law is almost never a viable excuse for citizens charged with a crime, but apparently it is a valid excuse for police officers who make erroneous traffic stops.

The case concerned a 2009 traffic stop in North Carolina. An officer pulled over a car with two men in it because one of the car’s brake lights was broken. The officer mistakenly thought that this was a safety violation. However, North Carolina law requires only one working brake light.

Nonetheless, the stop was initiated and the officer eventually conducted a search of the vehicle. A bag of cocaine was discovered and the vehicle’s owner was charged with attempted drug trafficking.

The case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices ruled 8-1 that the vehicle search was legal. The majority opinion stated that the search was not a violation of the defendant’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, because the officer’s mistake was reasonable.

But who gets to decide what is and is not “reasonable?” Moreover, it is doubtful that the average citizen would be granted the same leeway if he broke a law that he reasonably misunderstood.

Thankfully, at least one Supreme Court justice dissented. Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that the ruling “means further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down.” She also added that it could create even more distrust between citizens and police.

Source: The New York Times, “Court Rules for a Mistaken Police Officer,” Adam Liptak, Dec. 15, 2014

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