Can the Police Be Wrong and Get Away With It?

We’re frequently asked… Can a police officer be wrong and get away with it? A recent North Carolina case posed this exact question and the outcome may surprise you.

On December 15, 2014, in the decision of Heien v. North Carolina, United States Supreme Court Justices ruled that a police officer could make a seizure based on his belief that an individual was breaking the law… even if the officer’s belief was incorrect.

Heien v. North Carolina

In the Heien v. North Carolina case, an officer stopped Heien’s car because the right brake light was out. Subsequently, an in-depth search of the car led to the discovery of illegal drugs and Heien was ultimately convicted of drug trafficking. On appeal, the defense persuaded the courts to take a deeper look into sections of traffic code.

What They Found…

According to traffic code, having one taillight out is actually legal as long as the other one functions properly. Which raises the question: did pulling the vehicle over with only one broken taillight violate Heien’s 4 th Amendment, which protects him against unreasonable searches?

The 4 th Amendment – “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Based on the 4 th Amendment, was it constitutionally reasonable for the officer to search Heien’s vehicle, even though the officer was lawfully mistaken when he pulled the vehicle over in the first place?

What the Court Ruled:

Pulling the vehicle and defendant over was Constitutionally Reasonable.

The officer pulled the car over based on his reasonable, but mistaken, belief that it is against the law to operate a vehicle with one taillight out. The 4 th Amendment only requires reasonableness, not perfection, and allows for some mistake on part of government officials.

Where We Stand

Should police officers have the authority to stop our cars simply because they misunderstand the law? Shouldn’t law enforcement be based upon what the law actually prohibits and not on what law enforcement thinks it prohibits?

If you feel as if your 4 th Amendment rights have been violated by a police officer, call the criminal defense lawyers at Sandman, Finn & Fitzhugh. Our team has more that 45 years of combined experience defending those who have been charged with felony drug, DWI, alcohol offenses and more.