In this recent U.S. Supreme Court decision it would seem that the bar was lowered somewhat for police officers as to their knowledge of the law utilized as the basis of a traffic stop. In this case the office pulled over two defendants for driving within only one functional brake light. As a result of the stop and a subsequent search of the vehicle, Defendant Heien was arrested for possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Turns out that the relevant North Carolina statute was at best ambiguous whether it was required that two brake lights be functional or one. After making its way through the state courts (with the North Carolina Supreme Court deeming the statute ambiguous and that one light is sufficient – thus making the stop illegal and therefore the search was illegal and therefore the arrest was illegal). Upon appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 ruling, the majority opinion, stating that “reasonable men make mistakes of law, too, and such mistakes are no less compatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion,” determined that as such mistakes relate to the Fourth Amendment right against search and seizure, the Constitution, “tolerates only reasonable mistakes, and those mistakes – whether or fact or of law – must be objectively reasonable (italics in original). We do not examine the subjective understanding of the particular office involved.” Apparently the reasonableness in this case was the ambiguous language in the statute thus making the officer’s mistake – in believing that both brake lights, and not just one, were necessary for the legal operation of a vehicle on the roads of North Carolina – thus making the stop and the arrest within the bounds of the Fourth Amendment.
This decision begs the question are we now on the slippery slope of holding police officers to a lower standard of knowledge of the law than citizens? And if, as the Supreme Court here states, that a subjective understanding of the police officer does not come into play in determining this “reasonable mistake” theory one needs to ask one more question – Does that mean that a 20 year veteran of a state police department issuing 50 citations every week for those twenty years with an intimate knowledge of the state vehicle code who states that he did not know is not a relevant matter of fact in such a case? It would seem that perhaps, based on this decision, the answer would be no. If that is the case were does this decision lead to insofar as police officers pleading oops I didn’t know that!