Mistaken Police Officer

Mistaken Police Officer

Now An Exception to Unreasonable Search

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that a police officers good faith reasonable mistake on the law does not run afoul of the 4th Amendment to the constitution that bans unreasonable searches and seizures. In Heien v. North Carolina, the Court in a 8-1 decision written by Chief Justice Roberts that searches and seizures based on an officer’s reasonable misunderstanding of the facts has been permissible for a some time. Roberts stated that same reasoning should apply to mistaken interpretations of the law.

In a case from North Carolina based on a 2009 traffic stop from a broken brake light, the court expanded further into the erosion of our fourth Amendment protections of civil liberties. A police officer pulled a car over for a broken brake light not realizing the state law allowed only a single working light, which this car had. Sgt. Matt Darisse conducted the traffic stop of the vehicle that Nicholas Hein had been sleeping in the back seat as his friend drove. Hein, who was the cars owner, agreed to a search of the vehicle. The officer found a baggie containing cocaine.

A charge of Attempted drug trafficking was filed against Hein and he challenged the stop by the officer as a violation of his fourth amendment. Initially, a lower court agreed with Hein noting that state law only required one working brake light and suppressed the evidence. The Supreme Court of North Carolina reversed the decision of the lower court arguing that the officers mistake about the brake light law was reasonable.

Speaking for the dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that in the context of further minimizing the protections of unreasonable searches and seizures, this case goes further in doing away with constitutional protections for citizens. She believes this will further contribute to the mistrust between the police and citizens. She wrote, “one wonders how a citizen seeking to be law-abiding and to structure his or her behavior to avoid these invasive, frightening and humiliating encounters could do so.”

Chief Judge Roberts tried to limit the damage of his majority opinion by setting some limits that only mistakes that were “objectively reasonable” were permitted