In 2009, a man was illegally stopped near Dobson, N.C. because one of his brake lights was out. The owner consented to a search of the car and the police officer found a bag containing cocaine. The hitch, however, is that, under North Carolina law, it is only illegal to drive a car when both brake lights are inoperable making the initial stop illegal.
The Supreme Court was recently asked to decide whether the police officer’s stop constituted and illegal search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Surprisingly, the high court held (8-1) that the stop was reasonable despite the police officer’s mistake. The Court explained that his mistake was “reasonable”. In other words, a police officer CAN stop a car based on a mistaken understanding of the law as long has his or her mistake is reasonable.
The is a dangerous precedent because it allows police officers to stop and detain motorists even though they have not violated the law. Even worse, it also opens the door for police officers to feign ignorance of the vehicle and traffic law as a ruse to justify a stop.
A motorist who violates the law cannot use his or her ignorance of it as an excuse in traffic court so it seems pretty unfair for a police officer to be able to do so. What do you think?