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Traffic Stops and Reasonable Mistakes of Law

 Posted on April 15, 2017 in Uncategorized

Police are tasked with enforcing the law, but this can lead to problems when the police themselves do not understand it. For instance, police are not allowed to initiate a traffic stop for no good reason because a baseless stop violates the driver’s Fourth Amendment right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. Instead, police must have a reasonable suspicion of a crime in order to stop a car. This leaves open the question of what to do when an officer has a reasonable suspicion that a driver is committing a crime because the officer misunderstands the law. A 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling determined that, in most such situations, a stop conducted as the result of an officer’s misunderstanding of the law is considered acceptable.

Traffic Stop Takes an Unexpected Turn

The case arose from a traffic stop that began as fairly routine. The police officer in question initiated the stop on the basis of the subject vehicle’s broken taillight—a condition that the officer believed was in violation of state law in North Carolina. During the stop, the officer asked for and received permission to search the vehicle. The search yielded a bag of cocaine, and the car’s owner was arrested.

At trial, the owner sought to have the evidence regarding the drugs suppressed, maintaining that the stop was illegal from the beginning. He argued that his car still had one working taillight which complied with the state law’s requirement that all vehicles must be “equipped with a stop lamp.” The trial court disagreed with the defendant’s claims and allowed the evidence. The owner subsequently pleaded guilty to drug charges, pending his appeal of the motion to suppress. Appeals continued until the case landed before the United States Supreme Court.

Reasonable Mistakes of Law

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided that traffic stops based on reasonable mistakes of law do not violate a driver's Fourth Amendment rights. The idea behind this is that the law expects police to act reasonably, but it does not expect them to be perfect. Prior Supreme Court cases had already allowed police officers to stop people based on reasonable mistakes of fact, for example believing that both of the car's taillights were out. In this case, the Justices merely chose to extend that same leeway to mistakes of law. The Court noted, however, that this does not allow the police to abuse their discretion and that “the limit is that ‘the mistakes must be those of reasonable men.”

Questionable Circumstances?

The legal limits of police authority and drivers’ rights are always changing, so it is important to have an attorney on your side who understands the legal landscape. If you are facing criminal charges that arose from a questionable traffic stop, contact an experienced Will County criminal defense attorney. Call 815-740-4025 for a free consultation at the Law Offices of Jack L. Zaremba, P.C. today.

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