Can Police Officers Claim Ignorance to Perform an Illegal Search?

On October 6th, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on another interesting Fourth Amendment, search and seizure issue that could have an effect on many Minnesota criminal cases. The criminal defense bar will be watching this one closely.

The question is whether a police officer’s mistake of law can provide the individualized suspicion that the Fourth Amendment requires for a traffic stop. (Heien v. North Carolina, 366 N.C. 271 (2012), cert. granted, 134 S.Ct. 1872 (2014).) In Heien, the police stopped Maynor Javier Vasquez because one of the brake lights on his vehicle was not working. The officer mistakenly believed that under North Carolina law a car must have two working brake lights. The car was searched, and drugs were found. The issue is whether the search was constitutional in light of the fact that it followed a stop based on the police officer’s mistaken understanding of the law.

This little talked about case could have monumental consequences, but, like many critical Fourth Amendment search and seizure cases, it is somehow flying under the radar. This case provides the Court another opportunity to stop the deterioration of Fourth Amendment rights that we have observed in post 9/11 America. On the other hand, if decided the other way, this case will officially signal the death of the Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures (a right many believe became a legal fiction long ago). If the police do not have to adhere to at least a bare minimum standard of knowing what is illegal and what isn’t, what will our “criminal justice” system look like then?

Audio comes from HEIEN v. NORTH CAROLINA, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law,http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2014/2014_13_604 (last visited October 23, 2014).

Click here to read the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ (NACDL) Amicus Brief, arguing in favor of Heien.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution applies to searches and seizures in Minnesota and every other state in the country. If you believe your Fourth Amendment rights have been violated, an experienced Minnesota criminal defense attorney can help you protect your rights. Contact the Minneapolis, MN criminal defense attorneys at Brockton D. Hunter, P.A.