United States Supreme Court Strikes Severe Blow to 4th Amendment Protections

    icon Jan 15, 2015
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The state of our union took a severe blow last month with the repeal of Dodd-Frank provisions by Congress that were designed to prohibit the excesses of Wall Street speculation that put taxpayers on the hook for the mortgage-loan crisis of 2006, which our economy is still hobbled from; but this is nothing compared to the severe blow that the United States Supreme Court leveled to the constitutional rights of citizens in late December.

The court ruled 8-1 in Heien v. State of North Carolina that police officers are permitted to violate American citizens' Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search & seizure if the violation results from a “reasonable” mistake about the law on the part of police.

Acting contrary to the long-established principle that “ignorance of the law is no excuse, the Court ruled that evidence obtained by police during a traffic stop that was not legally justified can be used to prosecute the person if police were “reasonably mistaken” that the person had violated the law.

The Rutherford Institute had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hold law enforcement officials accountable to knowing and abiding by the rule of law. And Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Court’s lone dissenter, warned that the court’s ruling “means further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down.”

In terms of practicality, this latest ruling all but eviscerates and guts any notion of citizen protection against unreasonable search & seizure – easily one of the pivotal cornerstones of our democracy.  “By refusing to hold police accountable to knowing and abiding by the rule of law, the Supreme Court has given government officials a green light to routinely violate the law,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of the award-winning book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State.

“This case may have started with an improper traffic stop, but where it will end – given the turbulence of our age, with its police overreach, military training drills on American soil, domestic surveillance, SWAT team raids, asset forfeiture, wrongful convictions, and corporate corruption – is not hard to predict. This ruling is what I would call a one-way, non-refundable ticket to the police state,” he continued.

In April 2009, a Surry County (N.C.) law enforcement officer stopped a car traveling on Interstate 77, allegedly because of a brake light, which, at first, failed to illuminate, and then flickered on. The officer mistakenly believed that state law prohibited driving a car with one broken brake light. In fact, the state traffic law requires only one working brake light.

Nevertheless, operating under a mistaken understanding of the law, during the course of the stop, the officer asked for permission to search the car. Nicholas Heien, the owner of the vehicle, granted his consent to a search. Upon the officer finding cocaine in the vehicle, he arrested and charged Heien with trafficking. Prior to his trial, Heien moved to suppress the evidence seized in light of the fact that the officer's pretext for the stop was erroneous and therefore unlawful.

Although the trial court denied the motion to suppress evidence, the state court of appeals determined that, since the police officer had based his initial stop of the car on a mistaken understanding of the law, there was no valid reason for the stop in the first place.

On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that even though the officer was wrong in concluding that the inoperable brake light was an offense, because the officer's mistake was a "reasonable" one, the stop of the car did not violate the Fourth Amendment and the evidence resulting from the stop did not need to be suppressed.

In weighing in on the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Rutherford Institute attorneys warn against allowing government agents to "benefit" from their mistakes of law, deliberate or otherwise, lest it become an incentive for abuse.         

Most legal analysts agree, however, that the key factual mistake made by the defendant was to grant police permission to search his car in the first place, as according to the court’s logic, his rights were set aside when he allowed and consented to the search.  Had the defendant refused the search, the reason for the stop would have been defective and unrelated to any contents in the car. If the police brought in a canine unit, the case would have likely been thrown out of court (assuming the drugs weren’t in plain sight) as the evidence would have been unrelated to the stop and fall under the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine.

According to the CATO Institute, however, “The North Carolina rule opens citizens up to searches based on all kinds of lawful conduct, as long as law enforcement can have a “reasonable” misapprehension of the law in a given area. To avoid the intrusion of police searches, people will need not only to avoid appearing to participate in criminal activity, but also to avoid appearing to participate in innocent activity which police could construe as criminal. The result is a system in which “ignorance of the law is no excuse” for citizens facing conviction, but police can use their own ignorance about the law to their advantage. Officers are therefore disincentivized from knowing the law, which undermines public confidence in their authority and encourages citizens to dispute it during police encounters—putting both parties in greater danger.”

“The U.S. Supreme Court should make clear that law enforcement mistakes of law preclude lawful searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.”

What is your opinion about the recent U.S.Supreme Court decision allowing police to admit evidence found when searching a motor vehicle for an unrelated infraction when the officer is mistaken about the law behind the infraction that precipitated the stop?

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