Supreme Court says cops can enforce the law even when they don't know what it says


Police officers don’t need to know the law to accuse others of breaking it.

That’s according to an 8-1 ruling by the Supreme Court today in a case that involved a North Carolina man who was pulled over for having a broken taillight.

The motorist, Nicholas Brady Heien, argued that North Carolina law requires a vehicle to have only one working taillight, but consented to having his car searched. That turned out to be a bad move when the cop found a ziploc bag of cocaine in the trunk and busted Heien on drug-trafficking charges.

Heien’s defense was predicated on what he called an illegal stop. In the ensuing court case (Heien v. North Carolina), which made its way to the highest court in the land, Heien argued that the officer violated his Fourth Amendment right by pulling him over in the first place, since he wasn’t violating the law at the time.

The court disagreed. “The Fourth Amendment requires government officials to act reasonably, not perfectly, and gives those officials ‘fair leeway for enforcing the law’,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the court’s majority opinion.

The high court held that the stop was the result of a “reasonable mistake of law.”

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said ignorance of the law shouldn’t be a valid defense of anyone, and police should be held to the same standard as every other citizen.

“What matters,” she wrote, “are the facts as viewed by an objectively reasonable officer, and the rule of law—not an officer’s conception of the rule of law, and not even an officer’s reasonable misunderstanding about the law, but the law.”

Here are a few other instances in which cops pulled people over for allegedly breaking a law that they didn’t understand:

In Texas a police officer violently tackled and tasered a 76-year old man after stopping him for not having the proper tags on his vehicle. What the officer didn’t realize was that the tags weren’t actually required by law, since the vehicle still had a dealership plate.

On Thanksgiving, a Florida police officer pulled over law student Cesar Baldelomar for blasting NWA’s “F*ck tha Police” next to a cop car as the officer was writing up a separate traffic accident report.

“Really?,” the officer asked Baldelomar, according to the Miami New Times. “You’re really playing that song? Pull over.”

The officer then told Baldelomar he was going to cite him under Florida’s loud music ban, which was taken off the books in 2012. When the law student reminded the officer of this fact, the cop reportedly got frustrated and wrote additional “bogus” tickets, according to Miami New Times’ report.

Baldelomar said he will fight the tickets in court.

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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