A case before the U.S. Supreme Court argues that just as defendants cannot use ignorance of the law as a defense, police officers cannot justify a search and seizure based on a mistaken understanding of the law.
The case centers on a traffic stop April 29, 2009, in Surry County, North Carolina, in which a deputy sheriff pulled over Nicholas Brady Heien in a Ford Escort because one of his brake lights was not functioning. Police searched the car, and the occupants ultimately were charged with drug possession. But the deputy didn’t know that the state’s decades-old statute requires only one brake light to function.
Heien’s attorneys argue, therefore, the deputy had no reasonable cause to stop the car.
The upcoming decision could have significant implications for application of the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens and their property from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Representing Heien in oral arguments before the high court, attorney Jeffrey Fisher contended the legal reasoning that applies to citizens who plead ignorance of the law should also apply to law enforcement.
“Mr. Chief Justice, you asked, I think, about the ignorance canon. The state’s response was, well, if somebody is reasonably mistaken about the law, we would convict him,” Fisher said. “And the reason why is because we would assume he knew the law. We would assume … they knew the law when they acted.
“And all we are asking for today is for the exact same assumption to apply to police officers,” he said.
A friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of Heien presented the question of whether or not “a police officer may engage in a Fourth Amendment seizure based on his mistaken belief that perfectly legal behavior is illegal, so long as courts later deem his mistake to have been ‘reasonable.’”
“It is well established that a police traffic stop of an automobile constitutes a Fourth Amendment seizure of the automobile and its occupants,” said the brief, brief submitted by attorneys at William J. Olson P.C., the United States Justice Foundation and Weinberg, Jacobs & Toiani.
They filed on behalf of a number of civil rights and other organizations, including Gun Owners Foundation, Gun Owners of America, U.S. Justice Foundation, The Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, Free Speech Coalition, Free Speech Defense and Education Fund, Western Journalism Center, the Abraham Lincoln Foundation, Institute on the Constitution, Conservative Legal Defense and Education Fund, Policy Analysis Center, Downsize DC Foundation and Downsize DC.org.
In the oral arguments, Fisher pointed out that “with no disagreement from the other side, the common law rule dating back centuries was that ignorance of the law on the police officer’s part, even if it was perfectly reasonable, didn’t justify the stop.”
Written by BOB UNRUH
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