It is reasonable to expect police officers to know and understand the laws they are enforcing. After all, criminals cannot use ignorance of the law as a valid defense; therefore, police officers should not be allowed to use the same type of legal ignorance as an excuse to violate citizens' rights. However, a recent ruling by the United States Supreme Court may have opened the door for such an eventuality. Here's more information about this issue, and what you can do to defend yourself in court.
Unlawful Stop Leads to Conviction
The case that led to the Supreme Court decision involved a North Carolina police officer stopping a motorist who only had one functioning brake light. During the stop, the officer received permission from both the driver and owner of the car to search the vehicle, during which he discovered cocaine. The car's owner was subsequently arrested and convicted of drug trafficking.
The defendant's attorney attempted to have the evidence rendered inadmissible based on the idea that the search was illegal because the officer did not have probable cause to stop the vehicle in the first place. The officer believed the driver was violating traffic laws by having only one working brake light, which was the official reason for the stop. However, it is legal in North Carolina to drive a vehicle with one brake light.
Since the driver was not doing anything wrong at the time the officer stopped him, the officer did not have probable cause to detain him or the owner of the vehicle, making the stop a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.
The North Carolina appeals court agreed with the defendant. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned the appeals court decision. Eventually, the US Supreme Court decided in an 8-1 vote that the search was legal. Even though the police officer's understanding of the law was flawed, the judges decided his misperception was reasonable relative to what the law actually states. Therefore, the stop and resulting search were considered constitutional.
Challenging Mistakes of Law
Many critics of the Supreme Court decision are concerned it will open the floodgates to misuse and abuse. Only time will tell if this is the case. However, it's important to note the decision does make it clear that the mistake must be reasonable. This still provides a way for defendants to fight back against these types of mistakes by challenging the "reasonableness" of the mistake.
In many states, the law requires autos to have two working brake lights to be considered street legal. So it was reasonable for the officer to assume the same was true in North Carolina. The mistake in this case was a relatively minor one. More flagrant mistakes of law where there are bigger gaps between what the law states and what the officer assumed to be true may be successfully challenged on the basis that the mistake of law was too great to justify the officer's actions.
Another way to challenge a mistake of law and to expose intentional acts of misuse or abuse is to prove the officer does, in fact, know the law. This may be done by subpoenaing the officer's employment records showing any legal training or education he or she may have obtained. You can also show prior knowledge by presenting evidence of previous court cases dismissed because of similar mistakes of law issues.
If you're criminal case involves an issue where the officer's misunderstanding of the law contributed to your arrest or conviction, then you can expect the prosecutor to use the recent Supreme Court decision to defend the officer's error. Consult with your criminal defense attorney about tactics you can take against this strategy that will help you obtain the outcome you want.
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