If you've been stopped by police for any reason, as mentioned throughout this site, they are required to articulate reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, or some violation of traffic law to justify the stop. In other words, they can't just pull you over because they feel like it. The 4th Amendment to the US Constitution protects you from unreasonable seizure of your person during traffic stops. Reasonable suspicion is quite a low standard for law enforcement to meet, and now the Supreme Court has added yet another blow to reasonable suspicion standards for defendants in recently decided Heien vs. North Carolina.
The big issue in Heien was whether or not an officer's mistake of what the correct law was on a traffic violation would be overlooked as reasonable, and thus still justify the stop. In the Heien case, the officer believed the NC statute required 2 working brake lamps, when in fact the statute technically only requires one. The officer in Heien believed that he had reasonable suspicion based on a violation of brake lamp statute. Even though this belief was incorrect and a mistake of law, the officer made the stop anyway, and it led to drug trafficking charges.
Regardless of the officer's mistake of brake lamp rules, the high court decided that this mistake was reasonable, and that essentially an officer will not be held to a standard of a legal technician in understanding the law for the purpose of justifying a stop/seizure. This outcome doesn't surprise me, as we've seen traffic stop standards and our 4th Amendment freedoms decrease in many recent Supreme Court decisions. What this means is law enforcement is now held to a lower standard. If shrewd, an officer can use this gray area to his/her advantage to effectuate an otherwise invalid stop/seizure.
The real gray area here is going to be whether or not the officer's mistake of law was reasonable. Details that may be argued could be: What officer training or education was available or known to the officer under the circumstances? Does the interpretation of law in question leading to the mistake require a legal technician, and can a judge see the reason in the mistake the officer made? There should be more clarification on reasonable mistake as these issues are litigated in the future. As for now, it would seem that NC officers should be on notice that only one brake lamp is necessary until the statute is changed.
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