Police stops, brake lights and ignorance of the law

The following editorial appeared in the Greensboro News & Record:

When Sgt. Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department stopped a car on Interstate 77 because a brake light was out, he probably didn’t know he was initiating a Supreme Court case. Yet Heien v. North Carolina raises good questions about legal restraints on police power. It also shows that the law comes with wide bands of gray.

Defendant Nicholas Brady Heien was guilty of hiding cocaine in his car. But he wasn’t guilty of breaking North Carolina law by having one broken brake light, according to the N.C. Court of Appeals. It overturned Heien’s conviction on the grounds that Darisse didn’t have a reasonable suspicion to stop him in the first place.

The N.C. Supreme Court weighed in, reversing the Court of Appeals in a 4-3 decision.

In a ruling written by Justice Paul Newby, the court noted that there had not been a previous finding, prior to the Court of Appeals decision, that state law didn’t require two working brake lights. Therefore, “Sergeant Darisse’s mistake of law was objectively reasonable and he had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle.”

Justice Robin Hudson wrote the dissenting opinion in which she pointed out the duty of police to enforce the law as it’s written. In this instance, the error might have been minor; the next time, it might be more serious.

The U.S. Supreme Court found the case significant enough to hear. The issues drew plenty of interest from legal scholars, police organizations, other states and defenders of property rights.

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure. It’s come to mean that a police officer needs a good reason to stop a vehicle – he can’t do so just because he doesn’t like the looks of the driver. Making an improper stop creates a poisoned tree from which all fruit – the evidence seized – is also poisoned and must be discarded.

Courts have allowed a good-faith exception, however. This case seems to present an opportunity to exercise it. Sgt. Darisse didn’t know state law required just one working brake light. Almost no one knew before Heien’s lawyer looked up the statute. He thought he had a reason to stop the car, and a good hunch led him subsequently to ask permission to search. He looked like a smart cop, not a bully violating the rights of an innocent traveler.

A public opinion survey might show strong support for the officer’s point of view. A lawbreaker was busted – even though he wasn’t breaking the law for which he was originally pulled over. In the end, justice was served.

But was it? It’s an old legal principle that ignorance of the law is no defense for someone accused of a crime. Is it a defense for an officer who uses his misunderstanding of the law as a reason to conduct a stop that in turn results in an arrest? If so, what incentives do police have to learn what the law really says rather than rely on what they think it says?

The justices seemed divided during last week’s oral arguments. What they decide will influence how police do their work and how much protection the public has from being stopped without a valid reason.

MCT Information Services