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Supreme Court Hears Case on Whether Mistake Can Justify Traffic Stop
By: Joslyn Law Firm
The court heard oral arguments earlier this month on Heien v. North Carolina, a case in which an officer stopped a driver who was traveling with only one working brake light. The officer cited a brake light malfunction as the reason for the stop, but also searched the car and found cocaine.
The driver was charged with cocaine trafficking and was cited for the broken light. However, North Carolina law states drivers must "be equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle." Dayton criminal defense attorney Brian Joslyn said the traffic stop was not warranted.
"If the driver still had one working stop lamp on the rear of his vehicle, he was not in violation of the traffic law," Joslyn said. "The law calls for at least a singular light to be functioning. This means the driver did not need to be pulled over."
The officer stopped the driver on the basis of a mistaken belief about what the law says. The officer then searched the driver's vehicle, which infringed upon the citizen's Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, Joslyn said.
"Ignorance of the law is not an excuse, especially when your job is to enforce it," Joslyn said. "When it comes to the law, the police should be held to the same standards and work under the same presumption as ordinary citizens."
The case was appealed in state court. The appeals court found the mistaken belief that the driver had committed a traffic violation did not warrant “objectively reasonable justification”
The U.S. Supreme Court now must decide whether a perceived violation of the law can be sufficient grounds to give officers reasonable suspicion to conduct a stop. The ruling, Joslyn said, could determine whether an officer's simple mistake could lead to searches or arrests.
If the court rules an officer's mistake can lead to a valid traffic stop, traffic laws could be significantly affected, Joslyn said. For example, if an officer believes a driver does not have working brake lights, even if they are covered in layers of mud, the officer can make legitimate and rightful a stop.
Traffic stops can be the starting point for numerous criminal charges, including drug offenses (http://www.daytonohlawyer.com/
"Officers should be required to know the laws just as citizens are required to do so," Joslyn said. "If the law called for two working brake lights and a driver only had one functioning light, his or her ignorance of the law would not prevent a citation from being issued."
Joslyn said officers should not be allowed to make a "reasonable mistake of the law." The implications of the ruling could extend to other areas of the law. Several guns rights groups have filed a brief siding with the defendant because weapons laws also can be complex.
Brian Joslyn is a Dayton criminal defense attorney (http://www.daytonohlawyer.com/