Worrying Supreme Court ruling permits police ignorance of the law

Suspect was pulled over for violating a law that doesn't exist in the state

In some cases, police are allowed to pull over a suspect for breaking the law, even if it later turns out that such a law doesn't exist, according to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports, the controversial ruling, stemming from a drug crime case in North Carolina, raises serious concerns about police overreach and the potential for increased violations of citizens' Fourth Amendment right not to be subject to unreasonable searches by law enforcement officials.

A law that's not the law

The case stems from what may at first appear to be a rather unexceptional offense: a car owner being cited for having a broken headlight. The officer had pulled over the car in question for having a broken light and then conducted a search, with the car owner's permission, of the vehicle. After finding cocaine in the vehicle, the car owner was charged with drug possession.

It later turned out, however, that having a broken headlight is technically not a crime in North Carolina, where the traffic stop occurred. State law only requires a car to have at least one functioning brake light, which the car in this case had. As such, a lower court initially ruled that the search was illegal since the car had been pulled over for an offense that did not, in fact, exist in the state.

Supreme Court ruling worrying

After a series of appeals, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In an 8-1 decision, the court decided that the search was not illegal. The court said that although the police officer got the law wrong, his mistake was reasonable and therefore the search was permissible. The court noted that previous rulings have allowed police to make reasonable mistakes of fact, such as an address error on a search warrant, and that such exception should be applied to a reasonable mistaken interpretation of the law.

The ruling, however, has proven troubling for many. The Los Angeles Times notes that the case could end up undermining faith in police officers' abilities and their understanding of their duties. By saying that a police officer is justified in making a "reasonable" mistake about the law, the case means officers no longer have much reason to learn about specific nuances and technicalities that can arise in the law, instead limiting themselves to a more general understanding of the law. Critics say the decision could easily lead to an erosion of Fourth Amendment rights, which, as the sole dissenting justice noted, have already been significantly weakened by previous court rulings.

Legal help

The above case raises a number of troubling questions, especially for those who find themselves subject to a police search that may have been illegal. People facing a criminal charge should contact a criminal defense attorney to discuss their case. Upholding constitutional rights is imperative to a properly functioning justice system and an experienced attorney can help clients fight against a criminal charge, including by making sure police in the case did their jobs properly and in full accordance with the law.