In a recent ruling, the United States Supreme Court held that it is constitutional for an officer to stop a vehicle based on a mistaken but reasonable understanding of the law, our attorney explains.

In a serious blow to drivers’ Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, the United States Supreme Court recently held that an officer’s stop of a vehicle did not violate the Constitution when the stop was based on the officer’s mistaken but objectively reasonable understanding of the law.

In Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S. Ct. 530 (2014), a police officer stopped a vehicle after noticing that one of its brake lights was defective.  While writing a warning ticket to the driver for the broken brake light, the officer became suspicious of the actions of the two occupants of the car.  The officer asked the driver to consent to a search of the car, and the driver agreed.  The officer then found cocaine and charged the driver with attempted drug trafficking.

The driver argued that the officer violated the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures when he pulled him over, because the single defective brake light did not in fact violate North Carolina state law.  The driver thus argued that the officer did not have “reasonable and articulable suspicion” that the driver had violated the law as required for a valid stop under the Fourth Amendment.

While the Supreme Court agreed in an 8-1 decision that the state law requiring that a car be “equipped with a stop lamp” requires only a single working lamp, the Court nonetheless held that the stop was valid and the officer had “reasonable suspicion” because the officer’s mistaken understanding of the law was “objectively reasonable” due to the ambiguity of the statute and the relevant case law.  In a strongly-worded opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the only dissenting justice, wrote that the majority of the Court was “further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down.”

How to Protect Yourself after the Supreme Court’s Decision

While the Supreme Court’s decision further weakens the Fourth Amendment rights of drivers, there are several ways to protect yourself against unreasonable intrusions on your privacy:

  1. Avoid making any potentially incriminating statements to law enforcement before consulting with a lawyer. Regardless of whether officers inform you of your Miranda rights, you have the right to remain silent and to the assistance of a defense attorney.  Exercising these rights until you have an opportunity to consult an attorney protects you against incriminating yourself.
  1. Do not consent to searches of your vehicle or your home. Police officers may have an independent legal basis for the search, and you should never resist a search initiated by law enforcement.  However, voluntarily consenting to a search waives your Fourth Amendment protections and gives the police the legal authority to conduct the search—with or without probable cause.  You do not have to agree to any search and have the right to verbally object. 
  1. If you are charged with any offense, contact the trusted criminal defense attorneys at Greenspun Shapiro immediately. Getting effective and zealous representation early in your case can go a long way towards obtaining a favorable outcome.
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