The Supreme Court issued a ruling on December 15, 2014 broadening the actions a police officer can constitutionally take under the Fourth Amendment when stopping someone in a routine traffic stop. A police officer stopped a driver in North Carolina for a broken brake light. The car had one working brake light and one broken brake light on the rear of the car. The officer issued the driver a warning for the broken brake light and then became suspicious of the driver's nervous behavior. The driver consented to a search of the vehicle, wherein the officer found cocaine. The driver was arrested and charged.
The driver moved to suppress the seized drug evidence, but the trial court denied it and held the stop to be valid based on the officer's reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop. The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the code provision applying to brake lights required only one working "stop lamp" or brake light. Since the officer stopped the driver for something that was not a violation of the law, the stop was unreasonable and the subsequent discovery of drugs should have been suppressed. The North Carolina state supreme court then reversed again, reverting to the trial court's ruling that the stop was reasonable and valid. The United States Supreme Court considered the case, and affirmed the holding that the stop was valid.
The majority opinion delivered by Justice Roberts holds that an officer's mistake of law, if reasonable, can be the basis for a valid traffic stop and a subsequent search that results in discovering illegal activity is in turn constitutional. The driver continued to argue that when a stop is premised on a mistake of law, a resulting search and seizure is unconsitutional under the Fourth Amendment as it is not "reasonable." The Court rejected this argument, emphasizing that precedent abides by the rule that an officer's mistake of fact can be a valid basis for a reasonable and lawful stop under the Fourth Amendment. The Court expanded from this rule and held that a mistake of law is no different and can also be the basis for a lawful stop.
Justice Sotomayor authored the sole dissenting opinion, arguing that the majority failed to adhere to precedent of allowing leeway only with regard to an officer's mistake of fact in making a Fourth Amendment search and seizure. She opposes the Court's view that an officer can essentially get away with not knowing the law and charge a citizen with a crime that would not have been discovered but-for that initial mistaken view of the law that prompted the stop.
She cites to Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690 (1996) in support of her position that "what matters . . . are the facts as viewed by an objectively reasonable officer, and the rule of law—not an officer’s conception of the rule of law, and not even an officer’s reasonable misunderstanding about the law, but the law." I agree with Justice Sotomayor, particularly her assessment that police officers' authority is now greatly expanded by allowing them to conduct any search and seizure "so long as they can attach to their reasonable view of the facts some reasonable legal interpretation," no matter how mistaken they are as to the actual law.
Only one Circuit Court in the country agrees with the majority opinion issued by the Supreme Court in this case. All others agree with Justice Sotomayor and have ruled that mistakes of law by a police officer do not play a role in the reasonableness of the search and seizure. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed with this approach in State v. Louwrens, 792 N.W.2d 649 (Iowa 2010).
Perhaps the officer's mistake in this case as to whether the driver was required to have one or two brake lamps is understandable based on the vague language in the North Carolina statute, but to allow the law governing Fourth Amendment searches and seizures to be so greatly expanded presents an issue that will cause far worse problems in the future and confusion as to what "mistakes" actually fall into the category of so-called sufficiently "reasonable" mistakes of law by an officer that allow someone to be convicted of a crime that would not have been discovered had the officer understood the law correctly.
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