The U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the criminal law standard that “ignorance of the law isn’t a defense,” doesn’t necessarily apply to police, reported ThinkProgress.
The Supreme Court’s absurd 8-1 ruling relates to a North Carolina case where a couple of police officers pulled over a man because of a broken taillight. The officers then conducted a search of the car, which the Supreme Court ruled was justified. According to North Carolina state law, a broken taillight is not proper legal grounds to conduct a search.
During the search, police found some cocaine, and since to Supreme Court ruled the way it did, the driver, Nicholas Heien, did not have his rights violated. Also, the cocaine can’t be suppressed as evidence at a later trial.
The ruling cited “reasonableness” in that the law in North Carolina requires at least one working taillight and “other lamps be in working order.” The law is vague and hard to understand, which is what got the police off the hook. The Supreme Court cited “reasonableness” in that the police had committed a “reasonable” mistake when conducting the search.
According to the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, “just because mistakes of law cannot justify either the imposition or the avoidance of criminal liability, it does not follow that they cannot justify an investigatory stop.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only dissenting Justice.
“One wonders how a citizen seeking to be law-abiding and to structure his or her behavior to avoid these invasive, frightening, and humiliating encounters could do so,” wrote Sotomayor in her dissenting opinion.
The precedent set forth by the Supreme Court is dangerous and unnerving. It basically allows police officer to make any “mistakes” they want, provided they “reasonably” misunderstand or are ignorant of the laws they break. Essentially, police have been given more power.