Ignorance Of The Traffic Law Does Not Apply To Police Officers

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?

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6 Comments. Leave new

  • I was always under the impression that a police officer could stop me just to check my license and registration if they chose to. Am I mistaken?

    Reply
    • Steve S,

      Unless part of a routine roadblock, a motorist cannot be stopped unless a police officer has probable cause to believe that he or she committed a crime or violation. This is guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.

      Matthew Weiss

      Reply
  • Police state since 9/11.

    Reply
    • Anonymous,

      There is no doubt that our civil liberties and privacy has been eroded as a result of 9/11. Some would argue that these changes are necessary to fight terrorism. Others argue that some measures are overkill.

      Matthew Weiss

      Matthew Weiss

      Reply
  • this is absurd. Ignorantia Juris Non Excusat.

    in NYC its illegal to spit on the street. to anyone who isn’t familiar with it is reasonable to assume that its non existent. dogs urinate on the pavement, vehicles drip oil. yet spitting can give you a citation or even worse if you forgot your id.

    i hope someone challenges the ruling, or it gets used as precedent by other lawyers on behalf of civilians

    Reply
    • Deforge,

      Thanks for your feedback. Because this was a US Supreme Court decision, there is not further place to go in regard to challenging it. Now it is up to lower courts to determine what is “reasonable ignorance”.

      Matthew Weiss

      Reply

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