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Supreme Court rules an officer’s misunderstanding of a law is protected

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Zach McAuliffe
Zach McAuliffe is a University of Dayton alumni with degrees in journalism and English. He wants to present people with all the facts they need to make informed decisions on the world around them. He also enjoys Shakespeare and long walks on the beach with his puppy Lily.

A Supreme Court ruling on Monday found police officers who pull over a car for a traffic stop can search and seize the vehicle, even if the officer does not have a full understanding of the law used to pull the vehicle over.

The ruling comes after Nicholas Heien, a North Carolina resident, was pulled over in 2009 on the premise of a single broken taillight.  After being pulled over, the officer searched the vehicle and found a baggie of cocaine, and the officer then arrested Heien.

However, North Carolina law only requires one working taillight, so when the officer pulled over Heien, it would appear he had no legal right to do so.

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The case was brought up to a North Carolina appeals court who, according to VOX, agreed the stop was unlawful.  The case was then heard by the state’s highest court and the Supreme Court, who both ruled in favor of the officer, saying even if the officer does not know the technical aspects of a law, a search and seizure is still constitutional.

“This Court held  that reasonable mistakes of law, like those of fact, could justify a certificate of probable cause,” reads the Court’s ruling.  The vehicle search, therefore, does not violate the Fourth Amendment, as was argued by Heien, which protects citizens from unlawful searches and seizures without probable cause.  The Court said, “a search or seizure may be permissible even though the justification for the action includes a reasonable factual mistake.”

Ultimately, the Court found the Fourth Amendment requires officers to act reasonably, but not perfectly, since officers are human and make mistakes as well.  Chief Justice John Roberts said, according to the AP, an officer’s mistake of fact can rightly justify a traffic stop and therefore that misunderstanding can also satisfy the Constitution.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only member of the Court to disagree with the decision, saying an officer’s mistake or misunderstanding of a law, “no matter how reasonable, cannot support the individualized suspicion necessary to justify a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.”

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